ACT I: PRE-RACE
shut-up-and-take-my-moneyThe Winter of Disconnect: Shame on me! I call myself a trailrunner but I have never ran the Megastransect in Lock Haven. But this year I hoped to change that. So at noon on January 1st, 2013, still half-awake and with a bad hangover, I made sure I was at home and next to the computer. There are 950 spots open and last year the event sold out in 90 minutes. At 11:58am, I was in my apartment with my iPad and credit card ready to go. At precisely at 11:57 I begin entering my info so by noon, I can hit enter. “Resource error!” Resource error.” What..the.. I went over to the Mega’s Facebook page and discovered the server had crashed and was in a meltdown – slowly borrowing a hole toward the center of the Earth. It seemed that when you warn people that a race will sell out in minutes, people will take it seriously. There were thousands of people like me doing the same thing as I was and tapping at their keyboards in frustration. One of those people was my good friend Brian Beiler, who somehow I convinced to run the Mega as well. He has ran several Spartan Races and he has done very well. At one event he came in 13th or the top 3% in his age group. I think when I sold him on the idea of doing the Mega when I said something like “if you want to do a tough race, this is the one to do.” After over three hours of angry tapping on any connected device we could find, both Beiler and I got in and we were officially registered.
The Megatransect is a 26+ mile/hike and trail run event staged in Bald Eagle State Forest above Lock Haven. The course is designed to challenge any trained or seasoned athlete yet if ran conservatively even the recreational hiker or occasional trail runner not looking to set any PR’s can also enjoy it. The outstandingly beautiful course offers unique geologic features, such as an unrelenting boulder field of white Tuscarora sandstone called The Boulder Field. Cliffs line a scenic gorge to heights of 300 feet that sink from the Chestnut Flat plateau to a winding gorge called McElhattan Creek. Trails will also crisscross streams and brooks with multiple crossings and over small waterfalls. Competitors will be subjected to unrelenting climbs and down hills with total vertical gains over 5000 feet. Footing varies from soft peat to gravel to boulders as well as smooth stream stones and shallow water crossings. Every year, there is a new course, kept under wraps by race directors David Hunter and Brian Newcomer. Some of the favorite (or sometimes infamous sections) stay year after year like the Boulder Field while some sections are rotated in and out depending on the year. Often there are times new sections are added into the course. This year, the race directors promised that the course would be more “runnable”. “Runnable” is in quotations, noted Brian when I talked to him about this years course.

Is it September Already? In the weeks and days before the Mega, my training was nowhere near where I felt comfortable. I am one of the race directors for the Rock ‘N The Knob Trail Race on September 14th. The weekends leading up to Rock N’ The Knob, I was preparing for the race and not doing a lot of quality miles in my training. The day after Rock N’ The Knob, a day which I had planned to do a 30-mile training run to prepare for the Mega and other races this fall, I got a bad cold and I could only muster a 8-mile hike. I was sick for the remainder of the week and ended up losing 4 training days. A weekend before the race, I had to settle with a 10-mile run not wanting to do too much before the race. Despite Rock ‘N The Knob and my illness, I was still looking forward to the Mega and thought I could ask my body into doing a good race.
The Monday before the race I sat down and had drinks with Elmo who I was supposed to pace the last 37-miles in his 100-mile Oil Creek Ultra. Here was my schedule: Megatransect – 26+ miles on September 29, Pace Elmo at Oil Creek – 37 miles – a week later, then take a break for a week, and then run the Sinnemahome Ultra 50k on October 19. That is a lot of running for one month! When I talked to Elmo about my schedule, he said not to let my pacing duties get in the way of running a good race at Megatransect. He basically gave me the green light to run hard if I felt good.
During this week Brian Newcomer revealed the elevation profile for the Mega on Facebook (the course map isn’t revealed until you pick up the race packet at check-in). It looked like he was right and there was an entire middle section that looked runnable. I got my hopes up. In all honesty, I didn’t do much pre-race planning for this race. No timetables. No nutrition schedules. No target paces. I decided to run by feel and see how it goes. The only pre-race preparation I did was look at the 2012 race results. Since it was a different course, I did not make a guess of my target time but I did look for familiar names — those who I ran with in other races — and estimated where I would be in the standings. I figured if I had an exceptional day, I would make the top 60. Very good day – top 100. A good day for me would put me in the top 200.

1150315_10202097233212554_449635673_n
I did talk to four-time Megatransect veteran and two-time female winner Mary Kowalski who could not give me a lot of advice since the course changed year to year. But she did encourage me to run it as fast and as hard as I could. “Go light and fast” she said. That said, I planned not to wear a pack/vest but instead I opted to wear a hydration belt with two 20 ounce bottles and carry some Cliff-mini, one trail mix bar and some GU gummy chews.

The Countdown: I had a bad night sleeping. Up until Laurel Highlands Ultra, I have had a good track record for getting a good nights sleep. That evening my dad’s uncle Ted was in town from Seattle and my parents, Ted and I had dinner at the Wine Cellar in Galllitzin and I opted to sleep at my parents house that night. Before that night, I thought I was making the right decision. I assumed that I would fall asleep early without the street and bar noise I might have had to deal with if I was sleeping at my apartment in Hollidaysburg. I went to bed at 8pm since I had to be up at 3:30am. I was asleep for about an hour until I woke up at around 9:15pm and could not go back to sleep. I think it was 1 am or so before I did fall asleep.
I woke up at 3:30am, put on my running clothes, and ran out the door. Getting in the car and turning around in my parents driveway, my mother flagged me down with my wallet and cell phone in hand.
“You forgot your phone and wallet!” she yelled as she tapped on my car window. “This is a disaster!” she said. She has a flair for the dramatic.
“Oh, thanks but they are not important” I said acting like it was no big deal — which was a total lie. “But I will take it anyway!” I sulked. (She has called me every other night since then to remind me that “I saved your life” as she would say.
I drove down the mountain to Hollidaysburg. The plan was for me to get a bagel sandwich and coffee at Sheetz. But since it was so early in the morning, Sheetz did not have any breakfast sandwiches made ahead of time so I had to MTO-it. It was 4:15 and I told my ride I’d be at his house by 4:20. That morning I was hitching a ride with Joel Noal who lives near the junior high school in Hollidaysburg. As I drove up his street, I got confused with the house numbers. I went as as very hesitantly (there has been a string of instances of people being shot for stepping on someone’s property lately) getting out of my car and walking close enough to the house to read the house numbers hoping the homeowner isn’t behind the door with a shotgun. After risking my life several times, it seemed as if Joel’s house was missing. After driving up and down the block three times I realized I’m on the wrong frick’n street! I drove myself to the correct street and I saw Joel and Nicole Claar packing gear into the car. I was 10 minutes late.
Joel is an outstanding runner and is much, much faster than me. Many times I would upload a run onto Strava, self-congratulating about my achievement only to learn that Joel had climbed the same section at an overall pace two-minutes faster than me. Someday I want to be like Joel! Yet, today I didn’t have to worry about Joel. He was running under Nicole’s dads bib number. Nicole’s dad had broken his foot recently and gave his bib number to Joel.
I threw my stuff in his trunk and we headed north to Lock Haven, about a 90-minute drive. Somewhere on Interstate 80 near Lamar, I got a call from Beiler. He opted to spend the night near the registration area and he called to check-in on my progress. I was only 20 minutes away.
We made it to Lock Haven and then to the Castanea Sportman’s Club adjacent to the airport where the race was to start. We got there several minutes before 6am. I got my race packet and bib from inside the hanger and then waited outside for Beiler. While I was waiting for Beiler I got a chance to catch up with about a dozen running friends. One person, Luke Ebeling, was one of the runners that did the 30k course at Rock ‘N The Knob two-weeks earlier. He fell at mile two in the race and at the time thought he might have broken his hand yet he went on to finish the race. This morning he showed up with a cast and said he had needed six screws drilled into his hand. Of course, he was not running today but was going to cheer his friends on. Despite the injury, he still raved about Rock ‘N The Knob. It is good to hear that the one person that would probably regretted the race actually loved it.
While waiting for Beiler, I got a chance to talk to one of the Mega’s race directors, Brian Newcomer. I asked him whether to wear my Salomon Speedcross or my Brooks Cascadias. Brian said that the boulders were grippy and any wet rocks elsewhere on the course should dry up before I get there. He said to go with the Cascadias. Done!

Pic someone took just before the start. I am on the left, looking to the right.

Pic someone took just before the start. I am on the left, looking to the right.

ACT II: “RUNNING FAST AND LIGHT”
I started to become inpatient waiting for Beiler as it got closer to race time. Finally at 6:45 I called him but got his voicemail. I left a message and said that I really needed to get back to the car and get my stuff ready. I went back to Joel’s car, got my waist belt on, filled the bottles – one with Perpetuem and the other with Gatorade. I also had a 10 oz. handheld with 3/4 of it filled with Hammer Gel and the rest with water. I stuffed some Cliff-minis and GU blocks in my shorts pockets. By the time I got myself together I didn’t have time to study the course which was finally revealed as a topographic map in the race packet. On my way from the car to the start line, I ran into Mary Kowalski and then Jeff Calvert. Jeff is an excellent runner from the State College area who I ran with during our Lost Turkey Trail run back in August. (blog post about that coming soon). As soon as I got to the starting area, I realized that the race director was counting down! Since I was walking from the car, I found myself in the front of the pack — among runners like Mary and Jeff who were a lot faster than me. As the countdown came down to five – four – three… I fumbled for my iPhone to start my iSmoothrun GPS. Two.. one… Damnit! I am locked out of my phone! When the new iOS came out, I started using the phone lock. As I tried get past the passcode lock screen just at that second my phone rings! It’s Beiler! I was so rattled and clusterf–ked – trying to run with the crowd; getting pass the lock screen; turning on the GPS; and answering the call — that I had to step off to the side.
“Hey, buddy. You dropped something back there” said someone as they past me.
In the confusion my battery backup and cord from the backup to the phone fell out of my belt pocket. I stepped back to recover the battery backup but the connector cord was MIA. Without that cable the battery backup would be useless. I am not sure if my iPhone would have enough power to make it to the end of the race but I did manage to turn it on. I did not answer the call from Beiler in time. “Fuck this!” I think said as a put the phone in my belt pouch.
With all of that going on, when I started to run I was worried that most of the runners had ran past. I didn’t look back to see how many people were behind me but it felt like I took a long time to get my shit together. I was rattled and pissed off. When I started to run I started out too fast. Again, I was pissed and rattled and now I was running too fast. Worse yet, at the time I was totally aware that I was pissed off and running too fast but I couldn’t force myself to slow down even though I tried to keep my adrenaline and energy in check. The first 3.5 miles of the race was on pavement as you ran on the access road from the airport, under a four-lane highway, over the river and through the town of Castanea, and to the base of the mountain. The only solace I had was that I was already glad I chose the Brooks over the Salomons. The Salomon Speedcross are very bad on the roads.

The course

The course

As I went around a cloverleaf and crossed over the road I was just on looked below at the crowd of runners behind me on the curve and from the bridge. My spirits were lifted somewhat when I realized I was nowhere near in the back of the crowd and that there were hundreds of people still behind me. On the other hand I felt bad since I knew somewhere in that crowd was Beiler. He wanted to race with me the entire race and that I was the one who dragged him here. Though I had my doubts he would be able to run with me the entire race, I still wanted us to start out together.
Near the bridge I managed to catch up with Joel and Nicole who ran post we at the start. I told them I couldn’t get a hold of Beiler and I felt bad because of it. We ran together for a brief moment when Joel urged me to go on ahead.
Then in the middle of town, I hear “Ben!” It’s Beiler!
I jogged off to the side and slowed down as he caught up. I could tell he was running hard and he told me about how he raced through the crowd hoping to catch up but worried that I might have been behind him all along. We started to chat and catch up with things going on with our lives as we ran through town toward the mountains. We picked up the pace. Still, I was running a little bit faster than I wanted but I already decided even before we started to run this race hard. Elmo, who I was planning to pace at Oil Creek, said if I saw the opportunity to run good race said that I should go for it. Mile 1 to 3: 8:35; 8:10; 7:57 per minute miles, respectively.
I asked Beiler “How good are you running uphill?”
“Spartans run the hills”, he replied.
“Good.”
Finally the road makes a sharp U-turn and onto a dirt road. Beiler asked to step aside and to get his MP3 player started. It seemed to take forever to route the wires through his shirt, start the player, and place the earlobe hangers on the correct ear. If I had time during pre-race, I would have lectured him about not using headphones and music on a run but now was not the time. After getting himself together we start to climb the first hill, a wide jeep path up the mountain. I saw that Beiler already had his ankles taped up.
“Why are your ankles taped?” I asked. He doesn’t hear me. I ran up beside him. “Why are your ankles taped up?”
“What?! I can’t hear you! My music! It’s too loud!”
I groaned wishing I gave him that lecture as he fumbled for his MP3 player.
“Why are your knees taped up?” I asked again.
“Oh – just a preventive measure.”
“Are you ready to do this?”
“Ready. Hoo-rah!”
We passed Joel and Nicole who passed us again at the bottom of the hill when Beiler was working on getting his music in order. “Go get ’em, boys!” said Joel. We pressed onward.

Link Trail: The first climb begins as a jeep trail but quickly narrows into a singletrack as it climbs 3/4th the way up Bald Eagle Mountain. It is a ‘traditional’ singletrack climb as the trail climbs up the side of the mountain. It is an 800ft climb in 0.7 miles with grades anywhere between 20% and 32%. I like to think I am a pretty good uphill runner and this section was no different as I passed at every opportunity I could find. Strava – one of the three run tracking programs I use – has a feature called Grade Adjusted Pace. The site states:

Grade Adjusted Pace (GAP) –Grade Adjusted Pace estimates an equivalent pace when running on flat land. Because running up hill requires extra effort, the Grade Adjusted Pace shown will be faster than the actual pace you ran. When running down hill, the Grade Adjusted Pace will be slower than the actual pace. The steeper the grade, the larger the adjustment.

Even though I have doubts on its true accuracy, it supposed to give you an idea of the energy you are outputting. My true pace for the climb was 16:05/mile but my GAP said I was running a 9 minute mile. Okay… I am not sure what that means exactly but that second time is a lot faster than the first so I will take it.
What was more impressive was that Beiler was keeping up! By the time I got to the top, he was only behind a few places — about 10 seconds or so — behind me.
I may be good at running uphill but downhill is another matter. I am not brave enough to kamikaze the downhills. I can’t get me feet to spin fast enough, nor lift my feet high enough to bomb down the hills. The most efficient way down the mountain is to run down in without slowing down to a point that you start slamming your quads as you brake to slow your momentum. But, since I am so lacking on the downhill, I figured that is where I can improve my time, right?
I got to the top of the mountain and as soon as I started down the mountain, a guy in front of me was swinging his hiking poles in the air and jabbing them toward my face.
“I need to get around this guy ASAP!” I thought.
Ahead of me is an 800 feet drop back down the mountain and I did not want to be stuck behind ‘Mister Stabby’. I passed at the first opportunity. Soon I got behind a runner who I realized was choosing a good line down the mountain, at the perfect pace, and just happened to be wearing the same model of shoes as I was. Not only was I focused on the line but I was looking to see if his shoes would slip on the rocks. We both went down the mountain fast yet already I could feel my quads and calves taking a good beating. We both passed maybe a dozen runners in this section. We flew down that hill and then made the turn back up the mountain. Ahead of us was the Boulder Field.

From the bottom of The Boulder Field looking up

From the bottom of The Boulder Field looking up

The Boulder Field: After climbing about 1/4 of the way back up the mountain, the trees parted and The Boulder Field appeared in front of us all its magnificent glory like a curtain being drawn open and revealing a giant set piece on a vast stage. There are very few times while running that I stood in front of something and was completely awed. This is one of those times.
“The moon called. They want their rocks back.” – Brian Kunkle would write later after looking at a photo from the bottom of the Boulder Field that I posted on Facebook.
I attacked the rocks with gusto. Though the wall of rocks may look formidable, it is not as grueling as you would think. In fact, most of the other runners that day would say that this section it is a whole lot of fun. Like Brian Newcomer said, the surface of the Tuscorara sandstone boulders was grippy and most of the rocks were securely wedged in place as they had been for hundreds if not thousand of years. The key I found was finding a good line up the field. First I flanked toward the left side of the field then snaked my way up toward the top. At one point I even started to run up a section of about 75 to 100 yards.
“Show off!” I heard someone say to my left. I looked over. “Oh, it’s you Ben!” she said. It was Janine Gusztaw who is also an exceptional runner and has always placed very high in regional races including our Rock N’ The Knob.
“Hey, there!” I laughed. I was almost giddy.
Unbeknownst to me, Beiler was not too far behind but he later quoted to say “Unlike you, Ben, I don’t have billy goat DNA. You were in front of me then then you were gone.”
After a series of false ridges and bottlenecks where you think the rocks would end but don’t, I went through the Boulder Field and its 630 feet of climb in 0.46 miles in 16 minutes. I only looked back twice at the field of stone and the Bald Eagle Valley fogged below as I pressed on. Now that I write this, I regret that I didn’t stop a little longer to take in the jaw dropping view.

Running running up the boulder field (photo by Mike McNeil)

Running running up the boulder field (photo by Mike McNeil)

Runner climbing The Boulder Field with fog behind (photo by Mike McNeil)

Runner climbing The Boulder Field with fog behind (photo by Mike McNeil)

Rattlesnake Ridge

Rattlesnake Ridge

Rattlesnake Ridge: I reached the top of Bald Eagle Mountain onto a rocky yet still somewhat runnable trail. You could run for about a few dozen yards before slowing down to avoid the jagged rocks under my feet. The scenery and the trail reminded me of the Mid-State Trail between Spruce Creek and State College. It was at this time I wondered what Brian Newcomer meant by “runnable”. It wasn’t a trail where you could just open it up and run for miles and miles. You had to constantly focus on the trail to change your cadence to avoid rocks, roots, sawed stump or whatever else Mother Nature has in store for you.

“In trail running “every step is a decision.” And those decisions are important. Unlike marathon or ultra marathon races on roads, trail runners have to watch their feet at every step, working to stay on soft ground as much as possible (easier on the knees and joints), avoiding roots, rocks (or not if you decide that one rock or root might help propel you more efficiently). So in road running you just keep running, while in trail running you look and decide, look and decide for hours and hours…and, of course, you don’t stop.” — Larry Welkowitz about trail running.

Behind me I heard a couple of runners — a daughter and father team from what I could piece together they were from the Port Matilda or State College area. I learned a long time ago never ever look behind you while you are on a trail run. Often I would remember people only from their voices. (It will turn out that that I would hear the father and daughter again throughout this race.)
I ran around a turn and saw a person taking a piss right in the middle of the trail.
“What are you doing? Marking the trail?” I said.
He didn’t get my joke.
He was wearing a greenish yellow ‘Team General Electric’ T-shirt . Along the way I asked him if he had a masochist for a boss and if this was a mandatory team building exercise.
He said he was not a GE employee but joined their adventure team for this event. They have been doing this race for four years. With the General Electric guy in front, me second, and the father and daughter team behind me, we started to pass several runners as we ran toward the end of Rattlesnake Ridge. Next was the downhill..

Winchester and Kammerdiner: Winchester is a downhill section of about 700 feet in 0.75 miles down Bald Eagle Mountain and according to Strava, the grade was anywhere from -20% to -50%. I am not sure if he was one of the individuals I passed on Rattlesnake Ridge or if he caught up to me, but someone behind me began to talk to the father and daughter team about the Allegheny Front Trail Race. He was talking to them about how much the race had improved over the past year and I had to chime in about my own experience. He said his name was Matt Dixon. I recognized his name because the race director for the Allegheny Front Trail Race had mentioned him several times. Despite our conversation and since I never look back, I had no idea what he looks like.

"What am I doing here? I dunno!" - On Crossline Trail

“What am I doing here? I dunno!” – On Crossline Trail

I admit I had a blast coming down Winchester. I was running a bit more recklessly than I normally would. At the bottom of Winchester we made a left turn onto Kammerdiner Road, a jeep road. Even though it was a dirt road I still had to look ahead to find a good line and not to step on any of the rocks that were like marbles and golf balls under my feet. Despite the terrain and that I am a conservative runner, I did an eight-minute mile down Kammerdiner and somehow I ended up losing Matt Dixon in the process. At only 8.5 miles into the race I already knew I was giving my quads a workout but I continued on with reckless abandon. Near the end of Kammerdiner I started to wonder where the hell was the aid station. Since I didn’t examine the map right before the race, I assumed it would be at the bottom of Kammerdiner. As I ran closer to the 9 mile mark and with no aid station in sight, I began to worry. I was starting to get low on hydration and I started to eat one of my Clif Mini bars. In hindsight I should’ve ate more during the race. At two hours in only now did I start to take calories in. During the race it seemed like everything was happening so quickly and I was not giving myself a moment to think about calories I was burning. Moreover, I was probably expelling more calories than a normal run in the woods. Usually I set my watch to beep every 30 minutes to remind me to get some food in me but I failed to do that this time.
At the bottom of Kammerdiner, expecting an aid station, all there was was a guy on a four-wheeler telling us racers to turn right and up a ridge. He had with him a blue cooler. I, half jokingly, said, “Is there beer in that cooler?”
“Perhaps,” he said in a quiet monotone voice.
“I might come back,” I said.
The runner in front of me laughed.
The turn, at mile nine, was a sharp right hand turn onto Crossline Trail. Crossline Trail followed a dry stream bed up Nittany Mountain toward an area called Chestnut Flats. Remembering what I could from the elevation chart, this was a 625 foot climb in about a mile before a long “runnable” section in the middle of the race. Strava’s GAP voodoo said I must have charged up this hill, climbing up to the top with a 9:30 GAP pace. Finally at mile 10.25 I was the first full aid station.
At the aid station I see a woman approach me to my right. “Can I help you?” she asked. “Perhaps fill one of your bottles?” said the aid station volunteer. She just happened to be trail running phenom Ashley Moyer.
In the world ultras, she is a regional trailrunning goddess. She recently had a few articles written about her. I don’t remember exactly what I said but I could tell that she was flattered and a little bit embarrassed by my starstruck reaction to her. She filled one bottle with Gatorade while I filled the second bottle with Perpetuem and water. I ate a handful of gummy fish and took off. From here we would make a 7 to 8 mile loop before returning back to this station. Running was fast since we were onto the mountain and on a flat section called Dug Road before reaching a plateau called Area 51 and EZ Rider. As the name implies, this part of the course was relatively easy as compared to the rest of the course.
However, it was about here my legs started to ask “Hey, we’ve been running pretty hard of 160 minutes. What’s going on? Are we being chased?” said my legs.
The insides on my quads felt a little tight but it is something I decided to ignore.
Coming off Chestnut Flats, the jeep road that I was running on for a half-of-a-mile suddenly funneled back to a singletrack. Behind me were several kids about college-aged. The trail started to descent toward McElhatten Creek – a canyon that runs from south to north. Right at the crest and on a sharp turn to the right, my bib gets caught in some bushes and it nearly rips off. I had to step aside and re-pin my bib as the kids (about 5 of them) run by me. After reattaching my bib I had caught up, running behind the last kid in line as we dropped in the canyon. Next, the trail runs along a series of ledges over the valley. Then came a surprise by the race director – a natural parkour obstacle as the course drops over the ledge then below the ledge for a hundred yards then hops up and over the ledge via a sudden climb. As soon as the kid in front of me, who had been running downhill for a while, switched muscle groups from downhill to the soft ground, he immediately stopped in his tracks as a severe leg cramp had set in. I passed him and ran ahead, telling each of his friends that their buddy had to stop.

(Video by Brian Newcomer on the section of course described above. This is where the course dips below then along the rocks and then up the ledge and where the kid in front of me locked up.)

Then suddenly, like something out of a Peruvian rain forest, a magnificent waterfall appeared in front of me. We crossed the creek then toward the left of the waterfall. The waterfall was actually at a fork which one stream going over the falls while a larger tributary cascaded down a series of smaller falls. Across the creek I saw the guy with the broken arm from Rock N’ The Knob – Luke Ebeling. I am not sure how he got there since last I saw him was at packet pickup then I saw him as I ran through town. The trail quickly sidewinds out of the gorge and then to the second aid station next to a lake. With my legs already feeling tight, I slammed down a handful of salty pretzels. I also took a piss in a portajohn! A portajohn! How luxurious?!

(Above – Brian Newcomer videotaping at the waterfall. The guy in the red hat across the creek is Luke.)

Going toward aid station after the waterfall and before Rim Trail.

Going toward aid station after the waterfall and before Rim Trail.

ACT III: THE GOING GETS ROUGH

Rim Trail: Next is the Rim Trail. As McElhatten Creek runs downstream to the north, Rim Trail is high above along the canyon edge. Several of us where going along at a steady pace even though the trail was off-camber – dropping to my left. I was the lead pack of four to five runners. I think there was another guy behind me and two women behind him that were chatting it up about their ultra-racing schedules. They do an ultra about every two-weeks. Again, I never look behind me so I had no idea who or how many were behind me but it’s always nice to have some company on the trail despite that I didn’t talk much at that moment. My mind was on my feet.
It felt like the bottom of my feet were starting to rub themselves raw. I began to worry, picturing my feet would look like Elmo’s feet, skin almost dripping off the muscle, when he chose not the wear socks at the Hyner 50k. I never in four years of running ever had to lube my feet before a run or a race but that day I was learning that “never had doesn’t mean forever”. That morning, thinking I was going to run in my Salomon’s, I wore very thin socks since my Salomon’s are a little tight in the toe-box. I should have worn a thicker, more padded sock. But its too late to do much about it since I was 15 miles in. To compensate, I concentrated on shortening my stride and making sure each step was firmly planted to the ground to avoid any sliding. As the trail began to drop into the valley toward the creek, I let the group behind me pass since I wanted to slow my speed down to a pace that was less abusive to my feet.

Gorge Trail: Rim Trail dropped down to McElhatten Creek, now appropriately called Gorge Trail. I came to a creek crossing. When I cross creeks I usually just splash through with disregard to the depth of the water and try not to lose forward forward momentum. But I thought about my feet and figured water in my shoe will only make the skin on the bottom on my feet softer and peel easier. The creek crossing was about 8 feet wide. My foot landed on the first stone, the second landed on another, but the third step I go into the water and up to the top of my ankle. So much for my plan on keeping my feet dry. The water was very cold, in fact I never felt water that cold so late in the season. It was actually refreshing although I was worried I was going to pay for it later.
Gorge Trail was very rocky and twisty and pretty much not even a trail, you just ran from ribbon to ribbon along the creek. Then came another water crossing, then another, and another. I think there were five or six stream crossings. Once my feet got wet there was no point in rock hoping. During the run down Gorge Trail, the father and daughter team had caught up. At the bottom of the trail, the trail made a turn to the left and uphill. I let them pass as I stopped. I decided to tighten up all my laces as tight as I can – from the bottom lace to the top – to prevent my feet from sliding as much as possible. I was actually looking forward to climbing again since climbing was better for the bottom of my feet. The downhills caused the bottom of my feet to slide. (Even though I was pessimistic about my feet, thinking they would be raw by the end, lacing them up as tight I could actually helped and after that I did not have any more problems after that. In fact, it is somewhat of a minor miracle since such things like your feet usually never ever get better during a run. Once your feet are gone, you don’t bounce back.)

The Giant Steps: The Giant Steps is a one-mile, 633 feet climb up a V-shaped hallow over another boulder field. But unlike the big boulder field earlier where you have a 30-yard wide corridor to find the best line, here at the Giant Steps you are forced to climb up “the trail” at the bottom of the valley. There are also parts where the steps were high enough that I had to lift my entire body weight one leg at a time. At the bottom of the steps, there was a lot of jocking for position. I managed to pass the father and daughter team and a couple more people until I was the second person in a train of about 10 runners. The lead person in front me was doing some serious power hiking even though we was not a happy camper. “After this I’m done with trails!” I heard him utter at one point. The father and daughter team again behind me seemed to be in better spirits, talking about driving arrangements back home, vacations and other small talk.

(Above: Brian Newcomer shot this video from The Giant Steps)

At the top, Mr. Grumpypants yielded and I took the lead but for only about 50 yards until I got behind a guy who was also power hiking. Because I was behind him, the only way to describe him is that he had these ‘Killian’ legs – his legs were thin yet densely muscular and covered in miles of veins like spiderwebs. The grade began to ease up and it was almost runnable yet the guy in front didn’t seem to want to run after the climb and that was fine by me and nor did anyone behind me wanted to run either. All together, again about 10 to a dozen of us, walked for about a quarter-of-a-mile before we all started to run to the next aid station.
This aid station was the same aid station at mile 10 but now we are at mile 18.6 and had just completed an 8 mile loop. I did the loop in one hour and 50 mniutes. I was actually surprised there were still lots of runners that we’re entering the aid station for the first time. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I tried to down a PB&J sandwich. You would think that the less you eat, the more hungry you would become. Actually in reality, the more I ran, the less of an appetite and the harder it was to put food in me. Even though I didn’t to the math right then and there, now that I write this, I think I was getting only a third of the calories I needed. In past races I would normally set an alarm every 30 minutes and force feed myself. I failed to do that this time. Lesson learned.

ACT IV: RISING ACTION

The thin straight trees and yellow ferns at Slingshot.

The thin straight trees and yellow ferns at Slingshot.

Slingshot: I left the aid station and for the first time I walked even though the trail was runnable. Then just about 50 yards from the aid station, before me was one the most beautiful sections of trail on the entire course. Straight and narrow pines were posted like giant matchsticks and the forest floor was bright yellow with turning autumn ferns. It was the only true “runnable” race of the entire race as the singletrack serpentine between the matchsticks. The trail was covered in soft pine needles and void of rocks. At this point all my muscles from my core to my ankles were sore. This was where the mental part of my run began. The logical and normal thing to do is for you mind to say “oh man! You are suffering. Stop running, idiot.” Now I could listen to what my body said or…. OR…
I did not want this splendid piece of trail go by. I said out loud even though no one was around. “Give me a moment.” Then about a minute later, I said “okay, time to man up!” and I began to run.
I slowly climbed up to Kammerdiner Road. The road was again rocky with little pebbles and small rolling orange sandstone but still very runnable. It was also slightly downhill. My entire legs were very tight. The first muscle group that became tight were the inside of my thighs. Then the soreness went to my quads and lastly to my calves. Several people passed me on this downhill including three kids about college aged. The course then took a sharp left turn onto Rote Trail. I noticed my right shoe lace had come undone. I bend over to tie it. Bad idea! As soon as I bent down, my legs cramp, and I immediately straighten my posture. I decided to run until I found a log next to the trail to tie my shoe so I didn’t need to bend over.

(Above: Rote Overlook. Shot by Brian Newcomer)

Rote Trail: After a slight incline I came to one of the most spectacular views in the entire race. There were the kids that passed me on the road, standing at the overlook and taking in the view. I was a little bit miserable at this point. I just took a quick glance at the scenery and then continued on. “What are you waiting for boys? Waiting for a tour guide?” I snarked.
Even though I wanted to stop to admire the view I knew if I stopped my legs would probably cramp up so I decided to keep going. The course after the ridge was relatively flat with a lot of loose dinner plate rocks. Since it was rather flat, my legs felt a lot better. I was the lead runner in the pack with the kids behind me. But as soon the trail started to go downhill I let those behind me pass so I could take the downhill conservatively. This downhill was about 2.25 miles and drops 1000 feet. My pace is a 14:30 minute mile — on a downhill! Every 10 to 15 seconds or so, it felt like one of my muscles starting to cramp up. I would shift my weight, shorten my stride, or make some kind of adjustment trying to offset an onset an oncoming cramp. Every time I would feel a cramp about to set in, a surge of adrenaline would cascade through my body. I think I was actually in a little bit high off the endorphins as I jogged down the mountain. Finally I make it down into West Kammerdiner Run and onto a narrow jeep road to the final aid station. Except for brief two to three second “mini-cramps” I make it to the aid station without stopping or going into a complete cramp.
I think my judgement here was a little bit lacking. I was confused as the where I was on the course and how far it was to the end. I also should’ve taken some salt tablet, down a lot of electrolytes and took some quick energy like a Gu or a CarbBoom but all I ate was a couple of fig newtons and some peanuts. I racked my brain trying to remember the profile elevation chart that I looked at the day before the race. At the time I remembered that there was a “small spike” that we had yet to climb. My recollection was that it was only the few hundred feet up and then back down. But how bad could it be, right? I must be close to the finish, right?

Raw Trail

Raw Trail

Raw Trail: After leaving the aid station and up at short climb up an access road, the course turned left onto a singletrack that run between a pass in the mountains. I had a moment of false clarity at that point thinking, the course will ran through this gap to the other side of the ridge. But suddenly it was there!
“Fuck me! God damn son of a bitch” I yelled out loud. It was another fucking boulder field climb — and that was steeper and more jagged than the previous two border fields!!
Step. Step. Lift. Rest.
Step. Step. Lift. Rest.
Again. And again.
I crawled up that bitch!
Even though I like to think I’m a good climber I had nothing left my legs. Everything hurt. It felt like someone slammed my legs with a baseball bat, then ripped my legs from the sockets then used then my legs as clubs to pummel the rest of me.
There were also 4 to 5 false ridges, each laughing at me derisively. That was the toughest and worst section of “trail” I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was 600 feet and only 0.4 of a mile, but it was a 13 minute sampling of Hell. At the top there were 4 to 5 other runners who seemed to had better legs than I did since we all reached the top at the same time. I was the first in line to go back down the mountain. As soon as I started down the path and switched my muscle groups, a severe cramp seized tight in my left quad. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Cramping?” said the guy behind me.
“Yeah big time!” I replied.
“I have a bunch of salt tablets. You are welcome to have as many as you like” the guy said.
“Thanks that would be so great!”

Even course designer Brian Newcomer isn't looking forward to the Raw Trail

Even course designer Brian Newcomer isn’t looking forward to the Raw Trail

He gave me four tablets and then he passed me as well as four to maybe as many as five other runners that were behind him.
Luckily it was only a couple of minutes when my quad muscle started to loosen up and I felt good enough to start the downhill.
It was a steep and rocky descent – a 700 foot drop in 2/3 of a mile – and I continually changed my pace, cadence, stride length, and weight on each individual leg. I did anything to prevent my legs from cramping up again. The muscles were on fire.
“When is this fucking trail going to end!” I thought.
Soon I yielded onto familiar ground and now I was running down the trail that Beiler and I had climbed at the beginning of the race.
“Never in my entire life have I ever wanted to be back on a paved road” said the guy in front of me.
“No kidding.” I replied.

Castanea and The Green Mile: Finally I made the bend around the side of the mountain. Then at the bottom I finally hit the paved road into Castanea. The asphalt is a mixed blessing. No longer did I have to focus on the rocks ahead and always be changing cadence and footfalls. However the surface is harder. If all things being equal, it was great to have the mental break and just think about moving forward. I cautiously picked up the pace.
Not too far on the road, a family was clapping and encouraging runners as they went by. I am not sure if they were talking about me or the runners that were behind or in front of me but the father said, “That guy looks tired.”
“No shit, Sherlock!” I barked.
I kind of regretted saying that since his two kids and wife were watching with him. They looked aghast when I said that but in my defense. My legs were shot and very sore. What was weird was that above the waist, I was still feeling fine. Still, with the trail behind me, and my focus is only to keep my legs moving, my hopes were lifted and my pace throughout town was in the low 9 minute miles.
Leaving Castanea and running over the bridge, I saw Lee Ebeling again (broken arm guy) at the start of The Green Mile. Actually 1.2 miles, The Green Mile is a grassy section of the course that runs parallel a fence and Route 220. At the end of the race, many said they loathed this energy-sucking section. But as a ran through town I had been psyching myself up to soldier on this section. Runners in front of me start to slow and then grind to a crawl as I kept going, vowing not to stop. A quarter of the way through The Green Mile, a guy behind me in an orange shirt (his name Benjamin as well) began to pass me.
“You are doing great. We have 20 minutes to get under 7 hours. We can do it! Follow me!” he said as he ran along me.
Surprisingly, I had not looked at my watch for hours and I was a little surprised that I was still under 7 hours. “Yeah. Lets do this!” I replied.

(Brian Newcomer video of the Green Mile)

We would “rubber band” each other for this entire section. He would charge ahead then start to slow down then I would pass and say something like “Don’t quit now!” Come on. Follow me!” Then I would go ahead and we would reverse roles back and forth until we got back onto the paved road. We then ran under an underpass, and then over the railroad tracks (the tracks were ballasted on a four foot hill which was embarrassingly hard) then down along a field, then made a left, over a gradual hill and down into the finish area and through the finish chute. We has more than four minutes to spare.

Results: 6 hours, 55 minutes, 58 seconds. 115th finisher. 99th male. 33rd in my age category.

(I didn’t have a projected time since I knew the course was going to be different this year. I was close to my estimate. I hoped to be around the 100th person through the chute.)

ACT V: DONE AND SPENT

Post-Race: After going through the chute I turned around to the other Benjamin and we thanked each other for pushing us through the final two miles. I got my medallion and walked to the festival area. It was a tale of two cities bodies. Below the waist everything was very sore, bend and broken while everything was fine. I gave up everything I had on the trail. No one would question if I sandbagged the race. Even though you would put a fork in me because I was done, I had a tremendous sense of satisfaction for completing a challenging race. The pain I felt was from soreness and not from an injury. In fact, I was far more sore after this race than the 70.5 mile Laurel Highlands Ultra back in June. At LHU, the pain I experienced was in my left ankle and it wasn’t a “good-type of pain”. Looking back at other races, I was more sore (and injured) after Stone Mill and I was more sore after my first ultra in June of 2012 in the Laurel Highlands 50k when I was downright paralyized with for cramps for several hours post-race. At least today I could still walk.
After finishing I did not want to stop my legs, worried about cramping. So for about 30 minutes or so I just continued to walk — whether it was back to the car, along the course to cheer for the other runners coming in, (during that walk along the course, I found my battery pack cable lying in the grass) or walk in circles around the festival area. After my legs settled a little bit, I met up with those who finished ahead of me like Mary Kowalski, Jeff Calvert and many a few other friends and then got food (half chicken and pizza) as I waited for other friends who had yet to finish. Joel and Nicole came in about an hour after I did. Beiler came in 30 minutes after that. Beiler threatened me, never, ever, ask him to do anything like that again but I think deep down he has a blast. Lot of people said even though the course claimed to be runnable, may felt it was tougher since it was faster and more demanding. Overall, the times are much shorter than previous years but I was told that there were more tired bodies at the end of this race than in years previously. Those who had ran the race multiple times also noted that as the race becomes more popular, more hardcore athletes from across the country are doing this race and pushing “the locals” further down in the standings.
We all hung out on the picnic tables, eating food, drinking beers and talked about different sections of the course. Mary was concerned that I wasn’t drinking any of the Troegs beer at the finish. I only had one beer all afternoon! It was that I did not want to have beer. The real reason was that there were many attempts when I tried to lift myself off the picnic bench only to immediately need to sit down when it felt my legs were about to cramp. Even though I still had a week, I already had grave doubts in my ability to run 35 miles or so with Elmo at Oil Creek 100 next Saturday.

Days After: The Sunday and Monday after the race I was still very sore – sore enough that I gave Elmo a heads up that I will probably not be able to pace for him but suggested that Jeff Calvert might be willing. But starting Monday and through until Friday, I recovered a lot faster than I thought I would. From Sunday to Wednesday I took 2 to 3 mile walks each night to stretch the legs and heal the micro-tears in my muscles. By Wednesday all the soreness was gone except for a spot on my left calf and quad. By Thursday I was able to take a short 3.5 run at a 9-minute mile. It seemed like there was damage. Unfortunately I was still not ready to pace Elmo for Oil Creek but I heard that Jeff did stellar job, probably helping Elmo more I could. I did a hilly run on Saturday of about 11 miles. Next up: Sinnemahone 50k in two weeks.

LESSON: As for speed, my intensity, my nutrition, etc., I ran this race as if it was a 10k and not the 28 mile run I should have treated it. The Mega, though I had a blast, was a humbling experience. Mary Kowalski said “Go light and fast” but I failed to listen carefully to what she also said. “You will be climbing, dropping downhill, stepping over rocks, as well as running. You’ll be using different muscle groups the whole time.”  Translation: “Everything is gonna hurt!”