I HAVE BEEN PLAGUED with a cranky Achilles ever since it seized up on me on the Dam Scramble race. The first week after the Scramble, the Achilles was still inflamed. As the days went by, the discomfort seemed to have traveled slowly up my calf. I iced my tendon everyday – three times a day. I was also plagued with some bad luck. I ended up twisting my hips sleeping one night; I slammed a cupboard door on my face with such force that it left a mark on my brow; walked into some patio furniture while staring at spinning swallows as the looped over the post office. It was like my body was sabotaging myself. A week before the race, I ran in my first and only trail run on Blue Knob. My ankle seemed very tight and uncomfortable for the first half of the run. In fact, at one moment, on a slight climb, I thought it started to seize again. After running for about 4 miles, I realized I was late in meeting Adam McGinnis at the bottom of the mountain to do some trail work. During the entire run down Crist Ridge Trail from Chappelles Field, my ankle gave me no problems at all. In the week before the race, my Achilles felt better up until Wednesday when I had some mild yet constant discomfort all day. Even the day before the race, my leg felt a little off. Nikki Imhoff took a look at my leg and said it might be some lingering irritation at the point where the tendon merges with the calf muscles in my leg.
The evening before the race I didn’t feel confident about how well I would feel during the race. Ethan Imhoff offered to pace me from about halfway through the race but after looking at the course map, it would be difficult for him to access that part of the course. I also had the option of abandoning the full marathon and run the half course starting at mile 6. I would hate to have Ethan somewhere at mile 12 waiting for me and me not showing up. Plus I had the philosophy that if I was in bad shape somewhere out on the course, there wasn’t much Ethan could do for me. My biggest concern is being able to drive home since it was my right ankle that was bothering me. I told Ethan if things got bad and I could not drive, I’d call. However later that day, it turned out that Mary Kowalski she would to be in the area in case something went wrong and she’d be at the finish to check up on me.

The Full Marathon Course

INSTEAD OF SPENDING THE NIGHT IN State College, I would be starting from home and driving up that morning. I actually had a good nights sleep. I got there a little later than I thought but still had time to get ready without being rushed. I ran into some running friends that I have met during previous races. I also ran into Danny Mowers and talked for a minute before I ran to the starting area. The race director, Mike made a long speech about how 450 runners is the absolute limit and that he was tired of people whining to him about trying to register after the deadline. As a race director myself, I know his frustration.
We gathered at the starting area and we were off. I decided to start way in the back and run a conservative race knowing I needed to monitor my ankle. We started out on the plush, rolling, hemlock needle-covered Nature Trail within R.B.Winter State Park which took me westward to the park boundary. We then crossed over Rt.192 and turned south on the West Boundary Trail, which winded downward to Rapid Run. After I crossed a little bridge over Rapid Run, we made the first climb on a boulder-strewn section of single track on the north face of Brush Mountain. After the summit, I followed the well-defined single track down the south face of Brush Mountain. My ankle seeed as not as flexible as it should be but from the runs I took in the last two weeks, it usually takes several miles to get it warmed up. When comparing this section with last year, I was about 30 seconds to a minute slower this year in my mile splits. This year I ran the first two miles in 11:20 and 12:57.

AFTER TURNING WEST ON the Mid-State Trail, it was a very gradual, plush singletrack climb for the next mile where it then plateaued for a while. After mile 3, the Mid-State Trail got pretty rocky in a few places. I began to really feel my ankle protest slightly at this point and I began to compensate with my left leg. Still, I and another guy in front of me managed to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack until we caught up with an another pack of runners then waited for a good place to pass among the mountain laurel and blueberry bushes. After another gradual climb and plateau with rocky sections, we headed north on Douty Mill Trail. I tripped and fell, coming down hard on my back but I was quick to get up and continued running. At the crest of a small ridge, the guy I was following tripped and fell hard on his side.
Now in a group of five which include four housewives who ran like they stole something, we headed down into a dense white pine and hemlock glade. We crossed a small stream that this year had barely had any flowing water as compared to last year. Here I passed the other runners. I then came out onto a gravel driveway servicing a cabin near Aid Station 1. We crossed Route 192 then hit two semi-short, but steep climbs right in a row on Frederick Gap Trail, crossing over Hough Mountain and McCall Mountain. If there was anything I did better or faster this year than last, it is these steep uphills. I was able to power-hike up the steep, rocky hills much faster this year. I did the double ridges in 12 minutes this year as compared to 16 minutes last year.
I was able to conservatively descend the north side of McCall Mountain since I dared not pass the two runners ahead of me since it was very steep with loose rocks. At the bottom of the hill was Aid Station 2. This is where the Dam Halfers and the Dam Fulls parted ways. I stopped for a minute to refill my fluids and ate some pretzels and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich slice before I headed west on Jamboree Trail – a damp jeep trail – and then turned onto Black Gap Trail. After a nice gradual descent winding through a thick hemlock valley, I came to Engle Road then Tunis Road for the next mile and a half, heading south and then west. Both are state forest gravel roads. Due to compensating with my left leg, my left knee and thigh began to hurt and I was glad that here I could “balance” my stride a bit and straighten my posture directly over my legs. Making this adjustment seemed to work and I started to run pain-free.
Toward the end at Tunis Road at about mile 8.5, I heard steps behind me. Right before the left turn onto Schade Path, I said “If you like to pass, I’d do it now before we turn off the road.”
“You’re pace is fine” he said. “By the way, when did you learn how to scramble up a hill like that several miles back.” He was talking about the double climbs over Hough and McCall Mountains.
“I dunno. Perhaps from running up the trails back home.” I said. I learned his name was Robert Caris from Mill Hall. I told him about my leg and how I was taking things conservatively yet things were going well at the moment. On Schade Path, it is another grassy jeep trail with a nice descent and view on the south side of Hough Mountain. Before the summit of Hough Mountain, Rob started to slip further and further away. On the downhill, still not confident to increase my pace and lengthen my stride, I decided to take it slow. When you hold your pace down a hill, you really start pounding down with your knees and quads but I figured it was better to take the abuse than extending my legs and straining my Achilles and ankles too far. Its unfortunate since the downhill was mostly soft and I could have really opened it up and flew down the hill.
At the bottom, I headed right on Rt. 192, turning right (north) again for a half mile. Just before Mile 10, I made a right onto The Triple J Trail. This is the most scenic part of the race course. This trail was a beautiful, gradual climb through the Railroad Creek stream valley, very shaded with tall hemlocks and covered with ferns near the top. Footing was soft. We were warned by the race director that this section was entirely on private property and was closed to runners 364 days out of the year except for today. Up through the valley, I managed to overtake three runners. Then at the top, I caught up to Rob. We took a right on Tunis Road and Rob stepped on the gas while I hanged back. He was about 100 yards ahead when rounding a curve, I came to Aid Station 3 at Mile 11.5. I decided to stop for cookies and pretzels and refilled on Gatorade. Rob did not stop at the aid station. The aid station was at the start of Hall Mountain Trail – a grass and rock jeep road that was lined with young beech trees and passed through some clearings. One of these clearings, in the middle of nowhere, were pads for about seven to ten campsites with picnic benches. Here, I realized that my legs were feeling much better than I ever thought they would be at this point. I debated if I should go “all-out” and begin racing or keep things in low gear and race another day. Since I was still not halfway through the race and that I had ran little since the Dam Scramble and that my Achilles could still freeze up at anytime without warning, I decided to keep going conservatively but only slightly increasing my pace. In essence, I wasn’t going to go out with the gas pedal to the floor but I wasn’t going to “baby my ankle” with a casual run in the woods.

THE JEEP TRAIL BEGAN to narrow as it made a very gentle climb up Hall Mountain. After passing several runners on a short rocky descent on the north side of Hall Mountain, I caught up with Rob again who was now running slower as he ran with his sister. The next two miles was a gradual downhill and here I had the most fun and joy in the race. Rob, his sister, and I were running down some nice singletrack along the south side of Nittany Mountain. First, Rob’s sister peeled off near the top to tie her shoes while Rob and I, not wanting to stop our pace, kept going. Then as the hill got steeper I heard two or three mountain bikers behind me.
For a second I wanted to see what was behind me but the biker directly behind me smartly said, “Don’t turn around. We are not passing!”
This was a good thing I didn’t turn around since the trail was getting pretty rocky. Rob, who I later found out was a big mountain biker up until last year, chose an excellent line down the trail. Just before halfway down the hill, I heard the mountain bikers decided to stop alongside the trail and let some of the other runners go through. Soon afterward I heard footsteps running behind me.
“I am not passing. Your pace is perfect” said a woman behind me. We were really cooking with gas through this section. In those two miles (15-17) we averaged about a 9:20 pace with some sections we were doing about a seven-minute mile over rocky terrain.
At the bottom of Hall Mountain Trail, we headed back into the dense hemlock woods, headed north on Kemmerer Trail. We had to follow the ribbons closely, because there really is no distinguishable trail in here. It was more like running through a 50-yard wide corridor as we serpentined through the trees and made several stream crossings at the headwaters of White Deer Creek. Here, the woman behind me flanked to my left and passed Rob and I. After coming out of the dense hemlocks and into a meadow of dense ferns at the base of the ridge, she takes off like a rocket, looking as fresh as a seasoned athlete in the middle of 5k run.
I was tempted to say to Rob, “Do you want to follow her?” but she disappeared before I could say anything. That woman ended up winning the female overall for the full marathon.
Soon we hit a STEEP boulder field climb on the south face of Nittany Mountain. I watched for snakes and paid close attention to my footing since this section was the most gnarly and the most remote section of the entire course. If I got injured here I would be SOL for a long time! After the top was a gradual singletrack descent on Kemmerer Trail into Schwenks Gap. Rob started to gain some speed again but I held back. We were about mile 15.5 and I knew that after mile 20, where I ran the half marathon the year before, was a very fast section where I can catch up. The scenery was much like Railroad Creek – another beautiful valley of pines and hemlocks and I caught up to Rob sooner than I thought at Aid Station 4. Rob was pretty quick in and out of the aid station while I took my time. I took off my pack and loaded one of my external water bottles with a fresh bottle of Perpetuem I had inside my pack. I also took a few Advil and electrolyte tablets from my pill dispenser and enjoyed a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Mmmmm! After getting my senses together and my pack back on I made the steep climb up out of Schwenks Gap on Schwenks Gap Trail, which offered very soft terrain with sure footing. At the top, I headed east on Heintz Trail, a flat jeep trail leading to Mags Path. I made the short ascent to the top of the ridge and a long gradual descent on Mags Path, a rocky singletrack that scaled down the south side of Nittany Mountain. I wasn’t very happy here. The trail was rocky and at a constant grade down the mountain. It was too rocky to run fast so my quads really started to burn as I pounded my legs and knees with every forceful step.
Finally I got to the bottom, turned right (west) on Engle Road, and then made a quick left (south), and back on the northern extension of Frederick Gap Trail, the last stretch of the Dam Full loop. At first it was a nice, gradual climb through more hemlock woods into Frederick Gap then it is a long boulder-strewn mess. It was the only time I started to whine and said comments to myself like “What the hell?”. I also really hated Matt Lindsey at that point who said the Dam Full course was all fire roads. It wasn’t. The last portion is a short, steep ferny climb out of the Gap and back up to Aid Station 2 at Mile 19.7. I am now back on the Dam Half course! Rob was at the aid station and said “I just got here. I knew that was you behind me. What took you so long?”

AT THE AID STATION, ROB and I compared notes on the last section of the race and then together we headed east on Jamboree Trail – a gently rolling grassy jeep trail to rest our legs on. Last year in the half marathon, I flew in this section from the aid station to Stairway to Heaven at a pace of about an eight-thirty per minute mile. Today, in the marathon, I did a much slower 10:30 pace. After about one mile, we both turned onto the eastern end of Black Gap Trail. This part of Black Gap Trail was defined by a dry stream bed with lots of rocks at the beginning. After a while it turned into nice plush singletrack through a hemlock stream valley. Here, a dude was trying to stretch his quads, pushing against a tree.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Just cramping” he replied. “I’m fine.”
At the end, we turned left onto Black Gap Road and heading down to Aid Station 5. About a quarter-mile before the aid station, I felt one of my dead toenails on my right foot trying to painfully lift off my toe as the tip of the nail was grabbing on to the fabric in my sock.
“I am going to gross these people out” I said to Rob knowing I had to do some aid station surgery.
At the aid station, I took off my shoe and socks. My middle toe, dead, was indeed trying to pull away from my toe at the root. “I need scissors and duct tape” I said. I tried to cut as much of the toenail off but most of it remained. I took the duct tape and wrapped it around my toe so it would not snag. Everyone at the aid station looked on very disgusted. But soon I was good to go.
During my mending, Rob had taken off onto White Deer Creek Trail which was a mixed bag of smooth and rocky singletrack, gently rolling and slightly downhill. Last year this section was one of my favorites as I engaged the afterburners and passed almost a dozen runners. Today, for starters, I fell hard onto my left calf and my chest. It knocked the wind out of me. But I quickly got up and continued on. By the time I hit another small stream crossing near the end, I again had caught up to Rob.

WE TURNED RIGHT OR SOUTH on McCall Dam Road and saw the final aid station, Aid Station 6, to the right. I fueled up on cookies for the final climb of the event…. the dreaded Stairway to Heaven on Rocky Corner Trail. It was a gradual uphill approach on a gravel road before the Stairway. I felt strong and told Rob I was going for it and I would see him at the finish. This would be the first time since Tunis Road that I was ahead of him. The Stairway started off very steep in the beginning, and….. pretty much stays that way for the next half mile until the top. At the onset, there was my favorite sign which read: “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” Nice! Midway up my foot somehow gets wedged between several boulders and I had to lift them out of the way to free my foot. Near the top was a beautiful field of white Tuscarora boulders. Looking back at my run, I ran every section much more slower except for the boulder climbs. In the mile which includes the Stairway to Heaven, this year I did the mile in 11 minutes compared to 17 minutes last year. Excuse the pun but I ROCKED IT this year!
I was careful running amid the boulders heading down the south side of Naked Mountain. Rocky Corner Trail is all narrow, winding single track to the bottom with rocky sections at the top and bottom, fairly plush in the middle. Last year I ran down it with reckless abandon – this year I was more cautious. At the bottom, I turned on Boiling Springs Trail which is a nice, soft piece of singletrack to the finish, passing one last runner – the longest-legged woman in trailrunning in a running skirt and wearing Five Fingers. I think was seven feet tall. Then the last 500 yards was a straight path down an easy grade and then made a right to the pavilion and the finish chute. It finished in 33rd place for the marathon, 11th in my age group, in 5 hours, 48 minutes and 38 seconds. It was about 30 minutes to 45 minutes faster than my estimate. I was very happy to finish way ahead of my estimate.

EKG? Earthquake? No! It is the Dam Full Elevation Profile.

AT THE FINISH I WAS greeted by Mary Kowalski, who checked up on me to see how I was feeling. Actually I was feeling very good considering i just ran a marathon over rugged terrain with 8080 feet of elevation change. I was sore but as much as I would expect for a trail marathon. My Achilles did not hurt at all and I wasn’t cramping up like I did at the Laurel Highlands Ultra. In fact, if Ethan was here, he would have accused me of sandbagging another race. I was also greeted by Rob and we thanked each other for pushing us along.
In the days after, the soreness was gone by Tuesday night and my Achilles pain was non-existent. I think I did slightly tweaked my ankle and I did smash my big toe when the rock rolled on top of it during the climb up Stairway. I am sure I will be losing another toenail. It is rather painful right now as I write this as it is slowly detaching itself from the base.
Again, I am very happy to have ran conservatively yet made strong and steady progress with little after effects. A more experienced running friend said that even though it was not at my usual race pace, I am starting to learn when to turn it down a notch so I can continue onto the next challenge without incurring a major setback. I already have the next challenge in mind…. It is out of my comfort zone.