Me, Todd and Donnie, before the start of the race. We are all smiles.

WE STARTED ON A PAVED ROAD next to the pavilion and ran toward Lake Curwensville. Todd Lewis, Donnie Rhodes and I were racing with about 180 other runners in the 3rd Dam Scramble on August 25th, 2012. I ran this race the year previously and this time I brought some friends. We decided to stick together as long as we could. Near the lake, the paved road turned to dirt as the runners spread out and we turned toward the left along the edge of the north peninsula. Then we entered into a small section of woods and soon we were running on singletrack atop of an embankment near the river. Already — less than a three-quarters of a mile into the 18 mile race — and here was a new section from last year. Right from the get-go, my left knee started to bother me. For the past week, I have been having a dull but constant pain below my left knee cap — runners knee, perhaps? Next we entered a field and made a direct beeline across the field and toward the first climb. The three of us were running strong, passing maybe a dozen runners from the start to here.
We entered the woods and started on climb up a knob about 375 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.”You are right. Looks like we will be walking” said Todd, who has running just ahead of me.
He doesn’t know that the worse was still far ahead. The climb was a series of shelves. I took a moment to take a quick piss near the top of the climb, caught up with the guys and continued until we reached the top.
From the bottom, across the top, and now winding down the knob, we ran on nice and lively singletrack, zipped around tight switchbacks, and descended some steep sections thrown in for good measure. We were joined by a guy from between Allentown and Delaware Water Gap and wearing a blue tie-dye shirt. After the downhill the terrain started to roll with two short uphills as the trail became wider to almost a wide as a double track. At this point, I was not having a good day. I wasn’t feeling it. My knee was bothering me. I felt slow. And slowly I saw Todd and Donnie and the tie-dye guy slip further and further away into the distance.

Run to The Jungle. With the grass, dirt lane and weeds, it actually looks like a pleasant place.

We crossed around the northern flank of the knob and emerged out of the woods very close to where we started climbing the knob and made a sharp turn down a dirt road toward the lake. Here, a photographer sat. The last several races and runs, Donnie has been running shirtless. Several days later I was looking at some photos from the race and noticed that Donnie had more photos of him than probably any other runner in the race. There is one picture of him in particular that appears almost staged. In fact, Donnie is running from a different direction than any of the other runners on the course. I have a theory that Donnie turned around and posed for the camera. Donnie hasn’t confirmed or denied my allegation. I made an Internet character meme to commemorate the event:

The Bare-chested Runner

WE SOON APPROACHED “THE JUNGLE”. Todd and Donnie were out of sight but I was able to catch up to the tie-dye guy since it looked like he had to stop to adjust his shoes. We both entered “The Jungle”. The Jungle is a nest of thick vegetation and river debris along the lake as well as several deep ravines we had to cross. It was still a mess as we darted about amid the dense vegetation — but perhaps from the dry winter or since I was now familiar with this section of the course — it did not seem as bad as it was the year before. Last year I did the shorter 10-mile course. This year the three of us were doing the longer 18-mile course. We entered a twisty section of bottom land called Woodcock Trail. Here my right foot caught on something and I went down on my right side. I soon got up and continued running. Despite the fall and the increasing ruggedness of the terrain, my knee started to feel better and my legs began to loosen up and I started to pick up the pace. At the first aid station just before mile 6, I had caught up to Todd and Donnie. We climbed a hill across an open field. To change it up a little bit, Todd would go first, I was second and Donnie was behind me.

Running through the field toward The Scramble. We would around the clump of bushes ahead and into the Scramble (ribbon on left).

WE ENTERED IN THE WOODS AGAIN and ran parallel and above the field for about a tenth of a mile before dropping back into the field once more. There was no trail — we ran from one marker to another in the grass. Donnie actually managed to take a picture of Todd and I from behind. Then I saw runners running the other way at the edge of the woods to my left. They were approaching “The Scramble”. We made a sharp 150-degree turn around some bushes as a young woman stood along the entrance to The Scramble and told us to slow down as we stepped in. The Scramble is a old drainage ditch filled with large and unstable shale rocks. As soon as she warned us what lie ahead and we made our first steps into the Scramble, I hear Donnie almost falling flat on his face behind me. Clamoring up the ditch, I said “Didn’t she just warn you about the rocks?”
“Yeah. I don’t listen very well” said Donnie.

Volunteer doing some trail work on “The Traverse”.

AGAIN IN THE FOREST, we started nearing the river and onto the breach – a section called “The Traverse”. The Traverse is a section of trail along a steep bank with the river below and the sheer mountainside face above. It is about six inches wide in some places. Falling here would be a disaster. However, the three of us went through this section at a good clip much like mountain goats. We even overtook a couple of runners who hesitated at two different points where we had to fall in and climb out of a 15-foot ravine. I approached each ravine at the sharp angle toward the inside of the hill and zagged out of the ravine toward the edge. In fact, despite the hazards, we were having a lot of fun. Out of The Traverse, Todd said “Thank you for convincing me to do this.” I wasn’t sure if he was serious or sarcastic. I think it might even be both.
Then we made a turn away from the river and up the face of the canyon in a little bit of hell ironically called “The Ascension”. Yet, true to the namesake, I think Donnie had some kind of out of body experience — muttering about how he can not believe the terrain what he was doing — but yet here he was. Cresting the first shelf of The Ascension (we climbed perhaps less than a third of the entire climb) the Long Course exited to the right. I ended up leading the pack with Donnie, Todd, and another guy who had a white Mount Cuckoo race shirt following me on my heels. “Oh, great. I get to follow Ben and look at his robot arms” said Donnie making light of my stiff arm swing.

This pic of the section between the Traverse and the Meadow before The Spine. There was less grass and vegetation this year.

“I think Ben was conserving his energy way back there before the aid station” said Todd.
The trail was barely beat down and hard to read and I had to scan for the next blue ribbon (with me taking a slight off-course detour of a dozen yards) to help me navigate this section. Low grasses and a faint trail made staying on the trail tricky but luckily this course was very well marked.
Suddenly we found ourselves in a meadow along the river as a powerboat sped by. Now, I like to think that I have a pretty good internal compass but as we ran through the meadow, the river caught me by surprise! It seemed like the river should have appeared on my right instead of my left. It was until later when looking at the map that we came to a bend in the river and we were running on another peninsula. But on the trail, thoughts quickly change and you have to deal with the task at hand. I knew that somewhere and somehow we had to climb out of the river valley and up to Lake Drive. I knew we were in for a ball buster.

Looking up The Spine

A YEAR AGO I WAS TOLD about The Spine by Matt Lindsey who ran this race in its inaugural year. It was a son-of-a-bitch climb up the spine of the ridge all the way to the top. Idiot me, I forgot all about The Spine until we arrived at the bottom. DAMN! I think Donnie let out a few more choice profanities at that point. We started to climb and climb we did. Here are the numbers: it is only a 325 feet climb but it is within 1/5 of a mile which is the same distance as a east-west Manhattan city block. Even though it was steep, there was no actual trail — you just power hiked to the top. It reminded me of European cross felling.
I am not sure if the other two had stopped to rest, or something else had happened, but about halfway up (I hardly ever look behind when I run) I looked behind me to see the guy with the Mount Cuckoo shirt right behind me with Donnie about 50 yards below and Todd about 25 yards further down. For a second I debated if I should pause to let them catch up or press onward. I chose the latter. About 100 yards from the top I see a runner below The Spine to my right… running in the opposite direction.. toward and then past me below the edge. My jaw dropped. I looked at the guy behind me and he had the same expression on his face. I had mistakenly thought as soon as we reached the top, we would run the top of the plateau to the crossing on Lake Drive. I was wrong! The race director and course designer, Carl Undercofler, wanted us to run down the mountain! At the top, I paused for a second to contemplate whether to wait for Donnie and Todd.
The guy in the white shirt said “Hey, I am not very confident on these steep downhills so if you want to go, get ahead of me now.” I could not see Donnie nor Todd as I pause to look back down The Spine. Prodded along by my new running partner, I made the leap.

View of The Spine from the field adjacent to The Scramble

RUNNING ALONG THE MOUNTAINSIDE BELOW The Spine, I did not see Donnie nor Todd, which meant they were further down The Spine than I thought. I made the second switchback, grabbing at trees to slow my fall. The soft, loose dirt was getting into my shoes. Running on narrow and off-camber trails, my Speedcrosses were chewing up the dirt, and plowing into the sides in the hill on the switchbacks, stressed my ankles, calves, knees and tights. I could feel my shoes twist and contort under the strain. My bones and muscles were probably doing the same. I could envision the skin on the bottom of my feet began in grind away at the bottom of my shoes.
Every time I run in a race, I leave with a few lessons learned. Today’s lesson was that even though you are in a race, take time to take care of your feet. After the first set of switchbacks and when I reached bottom, I should have emptied any debris from my shoe and tighten up the laces around my forefoot to prevent my feet  from sliding around. But I failed to do so and I would pay for it dearly toward the end.
At the bottom of the switchbacks, I found myself on a worn logging road as it climbed again, but gently up the side, only to drop again down the mountain. Undercolfer had put in sections in the course where you would be on a nice logging road and hoping to give your legs a rest and you scan the trail ahead to see the trail gently travel into the distance. But as soon as you breath a sigh of relief, he would dash for hopes among the rocks or push it down a hillside — metaphorically and in reality. It was all a tease! Lies! Lies! Lies they were because soon enough, the course would suddenly drop down a steep hill or scale a mountain or do something ridiculous just to mess with your head and never giving your body a break. It was starting to feel like a boxing match rather than a trail race. Blow after blow; each section was a round. From the logging road, we dropped down several benches on the hillside and then we merged with the short course. At the merge stood a thin woman rather startled to see me coming down the hill on her right. “Long course, excuse me. Excuse me” I said hurriedly and not able to stop. Now that I was back on both courses, my mind started to roll around in my head: The long course which I just completed — from The Ascension, through the meadow, up The Spine, and down through the switchback — could not have been 8 to 10 miles!
“Something is wrong. Did I miss a turn and jumped the course somewhere?” I thought. It only felt like five miles, not eight.
As my brain flooded with questions, and on both the long and short course, I climbed toward the crossing on Lake Drive, passing a few runners and walkers that were taking their time doing the short course. At Lake Drive I see Craig Fleming’s wife marshaling traffic. I wanted to ask if she knew if the course I went on was truly indeed the correct course. But something else occurred to me right at the moment I got to the road: “Why is there no aid station here?”
At the start, we were told that there was an aid station at mile 6, 11, and 14. My ‘trail math’ could not compute… The short course is 10 miles long and the long course is 18 to 20. If the long course detour added another 8 to 10 miles even though it felt like 5. If it was a 5-mile detour and if there is only a 5-mile difference between the first aid station at mile 6 and the second aid station at mile 11, then the aid station had to be here at Lake Drive! It was not.
“Wait, what the? Where is the aid station? I expected there to be an aid station here” I said to her.
“No, it is still up ahead” she said.

Elevation profile. The red indicates the part from the bottom of The Spine to Lake Drive.

“What?!”, I thought. This must mean I am not at mile 11 yet? But I just ran the long course which was supposed to add 8 to 10 miles? Not only that but last year, this road crossing was about four miles from the finish. So if I was at mile 10 and had 4 miles to go, that does not equal an 18 mile trail race.
I was totally bewildered and perplexed. I think I gave her a nonsensical reply. It could have been something like “What’s going on?” or “Are we there yet?” or it could have been something totally out of context like “The shrimp eats cheese and crackers at midnight.” I am not really sure what I said. I was starting to suffer the early symptoms of Trail Madness! Some call it Singletrack Dementia… The Deep Dark Woodland Crazies… The Wet Shoe Willies… The Screaming Moist…

MY UNSTABLE MENTAL STATE COULD BE from what I just endured. Reviewing the course on my running GPS after the race, the section from The Spine, dropping down those switchbacks about halfway down the mountain; then back up; then down again to where I met the short course; then the climb up to the road; was a total of 800 feet of climb and 450 feet of descent in just 1.45 miles.

FROM THE ROAD I CLIMBED UP an embankment and through a section of dirt mounds and dugouts from old strip mine activity probably over fifty years ago. I pressed on, made a slow descent and a long turn back toward the west arriving near a campground and finally to the aid station. After running in the Laurel Highlands Ultra, I learned that I should spend more time at aid stations to refuel, gather my thoughts and not be in such a hurry to leave. I refilled one of my bottles with Gatorade, ate a slice of peanut butter and jelly, trail mix, and had a nice chat with one of the women at the aid station. She noticed I was wearing Salomons and that she loves hers but said that they haven’t caught on in the Williamsport area. She said her friend owns a running store in Mountoursville and they can’t sell them. I thought this was weird since Adam McGinnis at Fox Trot Runners has no problem selling the shoes to his clientele. As I always try to do, I thanked the volunteers for spending their day on the trail and I took off.

I WASN’T TOO FAR FROM THE AID STATION when I passed a slippery wooden bridge and started to recall some of the course I ran the previous year. But my head was still full of questions.
“How can that be the aid station at mile 11 when I have little distance to go to the finish? Maybe I missed the second aid station entirely? Or maybe there was a last minute change and that there is no mile 11 aid station?” I asked myself.
Then around a bend, I saw the second wooden bridge I had to cross but across it was yellow caution tape and a course arrow pointing up a hill.
“That’s it!” I thought. “It’s so obvious to me now! Undercolfer, you sly fox, you!” (I am not sure why my internal voice sounded like a 1950’s gangster. Trail Madness?!)
Carl was adding mileage to the second half of the course and this was where he was going to do it! “Eureka!” I said out loud.  Just above the arrow read the words “The Sidewinder”. The course went up a dark and wet ravine and then onto a small ridge edge. Then came the true “Sidewinder”. I am not sure if the zig-zag climb up the ravine was THE Sidewinder, but here was a half-mile downhill section with three switchbacks as it dropped down the plateau. Halfway through the descent I looked high above me about 75 meters up the hill and saw Donnie just starting the downhill. I estimated he was about three to four minutes behind me. Ahead of me, I can see the logging road that I was on a slow curve to the right as it slowly climbed. But again Carl wasn’t happy to have a nice section of trail in his race. The course immediately dropped down another bench on the hillside and to another switchback; every one of these drops were steep and loose with black and gritty dirt from coal mixed with rich topsoil.
After completing this section it all made some sense. This entire new section was how Carl gained the extra miles. I again found myself running toward the lake on a section of trail that I recalled from last years race.

SINCE MERGING WITH THE SHORT COURSE, I was passing either slower runners from the short course or long course runners that ran out of gas. It seemed like everyone I passed had earbuds and listening to music so I had to yell loudly as I passed. At one point I had to run on top of a plowed bank made of dirt and shale on a fast downhill because the woman in front of me could not hear me after several attempts of me calling out that I was attempting a pass.
I made it to the far shore of the lake and the sharp turn toward the direction of the finish line about three miles away as the crow could fly. This area was submerged during the August and September by heavy rains and was littered with trash and debris. I continued on, believing that I was in the home stretch. I still had problems with grit in my shoe, wearing down the bottom of my feet. Instead of stopping to clear the grit, I started to arch my heal on my right foot and reducing the amount of surface area between the foot and the bottom of my shoe.
Then came a sign, an arrow indicating the Long Course was turning left — away from the lake and the finish line! To the left was the short course, taking the more familiar path.
“Son of a bitch!” I yelled amid the trees.
Only a few seconds onto this detour, I felt a pain in the back of my right ankle. I started to limp on an uphill as I ran away from the lake. I stopped running and began to walk. My achilles had frozen up! Did I pull my achilles? Was it from arching my foot? Did I pull it running downhill or on the off-camber trails?
It wasn’t a sudden pain but in all happened within several hundred feet. I began to panic. In my entire running career, I never experienced anything like it and with that inexperience I had no idea what to do. Do I quit and prevent any further injury? Do I “man up” and keep going? I decided to keep going, hoping for a downhill so I could start running. But for now, I had to run-walk. Even a slight uphill paralyzed the back of my foot. Then all the limping started to cause my left knee, which gave me grief early in the race, to hurt again. I was coming apart. At one point, my pace literally slowed to a crawl to a 40-minute mile. My normal walking pace is 15 to 20 minutes a mile.
Luckily the trail started to turn back toward the lake and downhill and I could start running again. After a half-mile detour, I was back with the short course and pretty close where I detoured.
“Damn! Damn Scramble!”

BACK ON BOTH COURSES, I SEE A large rock on the side of the trail. I stopped and did something I should have done a long time ago; I took my shoe off to inspect my feet. There was a blister on the inside ball of my right foot below the big toe but it already popped. The bottom of my foot was red and raw from dirt grinding in my shoe. I emptied my shoe, put on my socks back on, tightened the parachute cord laces, and continued on. My ankle was better since the terrain is either level or downhill.
Then, about what I assumed was just two miles from the finish, was another sign! Long course runners must turn left, AGAIN away from the lake and away from the finish.
“No f**king way! Damn you, Undercofler!” I screamed and shook my fist toward the heavens. The pristine silence of the Alleghenies was broken. Birds and deer in the vicinity scattered. Groundhogs peered from their holes to see what was going on.
About 100 meters into the third long course detour, I came to the aid station. It was the missing aid station! It was the station I thought I somehow missed.
I again refilled my bottle with Gatorade and had a handful of gummy fish. I also asked for three ibuprofen to fight off some of the pain.
“Only four more miles to go” said one of the overly cheery volunteers. “Or you can quit by walking down this path.” he said.
I made the mistake of looking down that trail.
Have you ever seen a movie where the depth of field would flatten — bringing the background and foreground closer together? It seemed like that exit trail drew toward me to the front of my nose. I am not sure was I said exactly but I think I uttered a short “Agh! Nooo!” like a child frightened by a specter or a ghoul and I took off down the long course. I am sure those volunteers wondered if I was insane.
I started down the course. At times I had to walk again when the trail got technical and my ankle protested. Most of this section I weaved in and out of a large meadow surrounded by a rim of hardwoods like a drunken snake. The running surface in the meadows were made of balls of dirt that poked up from the ground which made it all uneven and tough on my ankle. But slowly my ankle started to feel better. The ibuprohen would not have kicked in that fast so I assume it was loosing up. I found myself weaving in and out, continuously making turns left… then right, then left again… over… and over …again. Sometimes the grass and shrubs where high above my head. It was like running through a corn maze. Also when running in the open meadow, it was so hot in the open sun. Paranoia ensued.
“How can I be running in loops and curves and circles and not cross this trail again!”, I thought, trying to make sense of it all.
It seemed like I was running in circles and I started to become confused and panicked.
“How can this be? Running and running! Where is the end? Why haven’t I crossed the trail again?”
Once my friends read this, this will most likely be a topic of great discussion and probable ridicule. However, I am confessing this right here and right now. It is going to sound strange but please bear with me: I was running, and running, and running and I kept running… in what seemed like an impossible route… when a thought came across my head. At that moment I seriously thought that I must have died earlier on the course and now I am in some kind of ironic purgatory and that I was doomed to snake and loop around in this meadow for all of eternity!!! My skin got clammy and started to gasp in shallow, frantic breaths.
“Keep it together! Keep it together!” I chanted.
But slowly it seemed like we were weaving closer and closer to a grove of pines in the distance. Then out of the corner of my eye, I see another runner. It is the first person I have seen since the aid station.
“Hey, Ben!” he yelled.
It was Donnie! I was so relieved.
With the maze being what that was, I had no idea if Donnie was 30 seconds or five minutes behind me. I left out a big sigh.
“I’m alive! I’m not dead! I’m going to make it!”

Out of the woods, literally and figuratively. I was coming down from my madness. This was near the two volunteers about a half minute from the finish.

Finally I made it to the trees, past a pavilion where a ranger stood to tell me that I still had two miles to go. “You mean to tell me that little bit of hell was only 2 miles!” I thought. It turned out to be wrong. It was just another half mile to the finish if that. Through another set of pines, into the park and I finally crossed the finish chute. 23rd overall, 7th in my age group, 3 hours and 27 minutes and 46 seconds.  Donnie was not far behind. 3:28:11 and in next place above me.  Donnie would have beaten me if we had another mile or so. In fact, I would have bet money before or during the race, he would have finished ahead. Awesome job, Donnie!
We waited for Todd, long enough for us to start to wait, but as soon as we mentioned it, Todd appeared from the woods. 3:36:49 and 9th in his age group. Todd did great but would have finished stronger if it wasn’t for the log he hit with his hip back in “The Jungle”. If you know Todd (or Donnie) since he saw it happen, you will need to ask them the story: Something about smashing square into a log that it “exploded” from sheer “awesomeness”…

At the end and there are still smiles on our faces.

AFTER THE RACE WE KEPT MOVING for several minutes before we sat down to eat. Last year I wasn’t too impressed with the soup from the church group but this year the soups and sandwiches were delicious. Maybe the soup was indeed better or maybe it was because of the ordeal we went through. We also took a quick walk in the lake. The lake didn’t have a beach so we walked on the rocky bottom and I was concerned that after all that I have been through I would scratch my  tender feet on the rocks and flesh eating bacteria would be the final push that takes me over the edge and kill me.
Considering the terrain and what we went through, neither Donnie nor Todd wanted to punch me afterward for telling them about the race. Even though it did kick all of our asses, we had a blast! Despite the pain we endured and my questionable mental state, I don’t think I enjoyed a race more than this one.

IN THE DAYS AFTER THE RACE, we both seemed to recover well until about two days after the run. I took a hike around Blue Knob grooming some trails on Sunday but Monday and into Tuesday my calves were hurting. I was a bit concerned as to what caused my foot to cease up and hoped it is not a strained tendon. By Tuesday, I decided to take an extended break for a couple more days to make sure I don’t aggravate it even more and end up with a season-ending injury. A PT friend of mine found a pretty bad knot on my Achilles. It was quite angry so I decided to take the week off. I need to heal before the Dam Full. This was was supposed to be my “training run.” Go figure…
Todd felt good on his 5-mile run the day after the race but by Tuesday he could hardly walk with his legs that either ached or were stiff like logs. Donnie had a good 3-mile run on Sunday only to have stiff ankles and sore hips come Monday but was able to walk it off by that days end and recovered well.
Last year I finished 7th overall on the short course but it is almost pointless to compare last year with this year. Not only did I do the short course last year and this year I did the long course… but there were so many changes and detours to the course that one can not make a good comparison. But I do know that we had a great time. We will be back next year.

This plate of spaghetti is the course. Like fractals, it gets more twisty when you zoom in.