Ultra running can be addictive. 50Ks are like the marijuana of the ultra-running world. A friend tempts you to try it and tells you “it’s not a big deal. You already ran a marathon, so what’s 5 more miles?” Your friend is cool, and their stories always sound fun, so you think to yourself, “What the heck? Sign me up!” So you do a 50K. Then another. 50K is the gateway. That’s where it all starts. Then you move on to the harder stuff. You read that 50K training plans aren’t vastly different than those for 50 mile races. You sign up for one of them. Then you realize that 100K is “only” 12 more miles, and you can run that in your sleep, so you sign up for one of those too.
And then it hits you.
The next distance to conquer is 100 miles.
You tell yourself it’s crazy. You always said those people were nuts. You swore you would never do one of those. Only idiots do those things. “I’m not an idiot,” you say to yourself.
Yes you are. Before you know it you’ve keyed in the 16 digits of your credit card and signed a waiver that basically says you WILL die on the race course and they may or may not return your body to your next of kin. You break out into a cold sweat when you take your next drive and see the odometer crawling along, and then you scream inside the car, “Holy $%#@! 100 miles is really, really far.” But you’ve already signed up for the race, and you posted about it on Facebook. And everyone knows that Facebook makes everything official. Everyone knows you’re nuts, and they’re waiting to hear about it.
My friend Anne became an idiot last month. And I love her for it.
After my friend Jen and I each completed the 100 mile distance, we started nudging Anne to do the same. She paced both of us through the night, and listened to us whine and complain. She is one of the toughest women I know, and I knew she could do it. For a long time, though, she wouldn’t commit. This March, though, when registration was approaching for Oil Creek, she told me she was going to go for it. I jumped at the chance to pace her. I was so excited!
Let’s fast forward through all of the training, and get to the race. We drove from Harrisburg to Titusville on Friday night, and arrived around 5pm for the free pasta dinner. We started running into some familiar faces. The ultra running community is pretty small, so you tend to see the same faces everywhere you go, even when you’re 4 hours away from home. We ate dinner with a guy who was entering the ultra world the next morning with his first 50K. We had a great conversation with him, and I think we gave him some great encouragement.
We checked into the hotel and met up with the rest of our crew. Ryan and Jen (husband and wife) were both doing the 100K, as was our friend Jeremy. Jeremy’s wife, Caryn, and I were on deck for crewing responsibilities. We stayed up a little later than we should have, but got Anne tucked into bed with enough time to get some decent sleep.
The 3:45am alarm came quickly, and we both got ready to go. Oil Creek is a fabulous race for many reasons. One of those reasons is that the race headquarters is at a middle school, so you can stay toasty warm and dry before the race. We go there, took some pictures (which I can’t find), reviewed the plans for the next 30+ hours, and then lined up at the starting line. She took off in the dark with a bunch of headlamp-wearing, GPS toting, layered up fools.
I had an hour to kill until my friends arrived for the 100K start. I killed it doing, what else? Reading some Trail Runner, of course. I had been dealing with injuries since early August and had barely been running. I read this magazine while eagerly anticipating some nice time in the woods with Anne.
The 100K folks began to arrive, so I went through the same routine with them. This time, though, pictures survived. Don’t they look awake, refreshed, happy and clean? It didn’t last.
Once they got on their way, Caryn and I because a crewing duo. She is a superb crewmaster, as we learned on our AT outings. She takes amazing care of her runners. I’d love to have her crew for me. Seriously, this girl is amazing. So anyway, we had some time to kill before our runners made it to the crew accessible aid station, so we went to Sheetz for some coffee and breakfast. A big part of crewing, especially at Oil Creek, is waiting. Oil Creek is set up as a 50K loop, with only 2 crew-accessible aid stations – one at mile 14 and the other at the start/finish/mile 31. Our hotel was located exactly in between the two locations, so it was perfect. We never really had to rush anywhere.
We got to AS#2 before the sun came up. It was COLD and beautiful.
We waited for a while, chatting away. Anne came through so suddenly that we nearly missed her. At this point we realized we weren’t in the best position to see our runners, so we moved to a better spot. Once she was through, we started to wonder where Ryan was. He’s pretty darned fast, and we expected him to either pass Anne or come in right behind her. We didn’t see him. Our friend Matt and his buddy Don came through. Matt wasn’t feeling particularly well, so we tried to cheer him up as best we could and get him back on his way. Both guys were looking for their first 100M finish as well. Matt had battled Lyme disease all summer, so I was very impressed that he lined up at the start. Once they left, we realized we must have missed Ryan somehow. I was pissed at myself for missing him, but he wasn’t looking to us for anything, so I knew he was fine. Jeremy came through next, and then Jen. Everyone looked great. Everyone come in within minutes of what I predicted, so we were doing well. It was time to pack it up and move to AS#4.
At this point we met up with even more people we knew. It’s like a big party. A big, cold party with no booze, no games and lots of smells. We had a ton of time to pass this time, so we actually went back to our hotel. I did some more reading, while Caryn worked on some knitting. We finally decided to head to AS4. We got there in what seemed like plenty of time, but then Caryn noticed Ryan smoking by! He BLAZED through that first 50K. It was fast…..a little too fast, one might say. We were pretty amazed. Other than Ryan, though, everyone was right where we expected them to be. The weather was perfect for running, albeit a little chilly for crewing. At least it wasn’t raining. Or snowing. Thank God for that. Once again it was time to move our little camp to AS#2 and play the waiting game.
We did see Ryan this time. He is a master at aid stations. Ultras can be won or lost in those things. You have to know what you need and have a strategy, otherwise you can spend way too much time there. He was in and out of there in less than a minute with a full water bottle and a slice of cold pizza.
Early on Anne picked up a running partner for the day. She met up with Matt (a different one than I mentioned earlier). It turns out he lives pretty close to us, and had actually been planning to join us for some of our AT runs. He too had been battling some health issues, but was going for his first 100 miler. The two of them came into mile 45 looking great. They had no complaints. They were nearly halfway there, and were feeling great. After this aid station we wouldn’t see them again until darkness fell. I was glad they had partnered up by this point, because running at night by yourself can be a little tough in the later miles of a race.
Jeremy came through next, and while he looked strong, he said he was having a rough time. He told me he was arguing with himself about dropping. He said he thought about dropping 4 times. He seemed surprised at that, and maybe a bit disappointed. I told him 4 times was pretty good; I would have expected more for a first attempt at a distance beyond 50K. I tried to encourage him, maybe a bit more strongly than he would have liked, to get back out there. I kinda figured that since I’d been there before (having done the 100K twice and 100M once on that course), I could say it with some authority. But I’m part bitch, so there’s that.
We hadn’t seen Matt yet, even though Don passed through. Don said Matt wasn’t feeling so great so they decided to split up. We decided we’d wait for him to come through since they didn’t have any friends or family along for the race. Shortly after we decided that, Jen came through, all smiles. Once we were ready to bid her farewell, we told her we were going to wait for Matt. Thank goodness we did, because she told us that he had dropped. We would have waited for a long time until we figured that out. Unfortunately he was having some food pain. It was so early in the race (mile 38) that he made the decision to withdraw. It sucks, but sometimes, as in this case, it’s the right decision.
We went back to the hotel room once again. This time I had to get dressed for my pacing duties and get some food in me. We’d eaten a little through the day, but no real meal. I downed a quick smoothie and put on a whole bunch of clothes. It was very cold and clear. It was a little colder at the start and during the day the year I ran it, and we had a little rain, but the overnight was forecasted to be colder than that year. Entering at mile 63, with zero miles under my belt, I’d be cold. I put on pretty much everything I had and went to the school. I got to see Jeremy finish, which was hilarious. He pushed and finished in just over 14 hours, but his wife missed the finish line photo. She made him repeat the finish….not once, but twice. Someone not quite as nice as Jeremy may have exploded, but he was all smiles with each subsequent “finish”. However, after the 3rd one, he said he was done. Thankfully Caryn got some good pictures.
I had to move away from the finish line before Jen finished (oh – Ryan finished a couple hours earlier, motivated by sunset). The aid station was a few hundred yards from the finish line, and I couldn’t take the chance of missing Anne. I met up with Matt, who decided to crew for Don since he had pulled out of the race. We waited in the cold for about 90 minutes, chatting with other crew, pacers, and runners. I freaking love that atmosphere. Even though I was freezing my ass off, I was still enjoying myself.
When I saw Anne, I got super excited. We got her ready to go, and then the two of us went on our way. The first thing she said to me was, “I’m walking this whole loop. The whole loop.” I had mixed feelings about this. I was kind of happy to hear this because I didn’t know if my knee would hold up to much running. But at the same time, I didn’t really like the idea of walking 31 miles. I cut her a deal: “If you hike with me, you have to try to run some of the final 8 with Caryn.” She agreed.
The first couple of miles were on a asphalt bike path with no tree cover. It was FREEZING. Caryn recommended I keep on my heavy cotton hoodie, and it was a fantastic idea. I was still cold. Once we got on the trail and under the trees, it warmed up significantly. Once we were about 4 miles in I was roasting. I tied that bad boy around my waist, realized I looked like a total doofus, embraced it, and ran a few yards to catch up with Anne. A few minutes later picked up her friend Matt and his pacer. The four of us hiked at a good pace, sharing conversation and cursing the slippery mud. On this loop, the final large one, seeing each aid station is like seeing an oasis in the desert. When you see the lights, you get so excited! We didn’t need water, but we each got something hot to warm us up. We headed up “sWITCHback mountain”. It’s not the steepest climb I’ve ever done, but at 70 miles, it feels like it.
A short while later we realized we lost Matt and his pacer. (We later found out that he had some asthma issues and had to drop. Bummer.) We picked up some other folks and stayed with them for most of the rest of the loop. The overnight hours can be tough. The runner might hallucinate. They might start to get super sleepy. They might get hungry. Or angry. Or, my favorite, hangry. None of this happened to Anne. She never complained – not even once. I tried to keep her talking, but I was running out of things to say. We run together so much that I realized we’ve pretty much exhausted every topic. That was not a good time to realize such a thing. Aside from asking about her labor experiences with each of her daughter, I think we’ve talked about everything!
I checked in with her about all sorts of stuff all night. Every time we came upon an aid station, I asked her what she thought she’d want. Once we got there, I’d make sure she got it. It got tougher and tougher to make her leave the aid stations, but I didn’t push her too hard. As I said, we run together regularly and I always feel like we’re pretty well matched. It wasn’t until deep into her 100 mile race that I could see our difference in age peeping through. She’s 20 years old than me. While she’s in freaking amazing shape, she still has 20 years of steps on me. I think it started to catch up with her. Don’t think I’m a terrible person; I hesitantly mentioned this to her a couple of weeks ago and she agreed with me. She still rocked the course, but there were times when there was a tiny bit of spring missing from her step. Still she did better than Jen and I did in that she had no twisted ankles or GI issues. If you’ve ever attempted something like this, you know that’s HUGE!
When we saw the first peeks of sunlight, it was time to get happy. After hours of walking by our headlamps, our necks and shoulders were stiff. When we could finally take those off, I made sure to call out “shoulders back” every so often. We had to both make an effort to straighten our posture and pull our shoulder blades back.
The trail took on a new look in the fresh light. It was beautiful. But it was still cold. We crossed some power lines late in the race and realized there was frost. Dang! We trudged on, back into the relative warmth of the woods. At this point I could tell that Anne was really looking forward to being done. I remember that feeling well. Knowing that you have to hit the school one more time and then head back out again is just torture.
We exited the trail and had to go around the Drake Well Museum. Usually that is brutal, because you can hear it a couple of miles away. It’s so annoying, and impossible to explain. This time, though, we couldn’t hear it. Apparently it wasn’t working quite right, thank goodness. Again, there was frost everywhere. It looks like Elsa had frozen Titusville.
Anne approached the middle school with a bit more spring in her step. I had managed to convince her to run here and there during the last 4 or 5 miles, but not much. She was just done, and that’s okay. Walking in an ultra is not unusual, and she had plenty of time to finish, so it was fine. As we got onto the sidewalk approaching the school, Anne cut me off and I nearly fell in a hole. We all burst into laughter, so everyone who saw us coming in thought we were having a grand old time. (Honestly, I was.)
At this point, we got Anne ready to go out one last time – this time, with Caryn. I told Caryn to try to get Anne to run as much as she could but not to push her.
I felt bad that I wasn’t going to take her to the finish line, but knew she’d be in good hands with Caryn. I was frozen to the core, so I headed back to the hotel to take the hottest shower of my life. I made myself some soup and headed back to the school to wait for Anne. As we waited for her, we witnessed the most spectacular finish I’ve ever seen. I guy we’d seen earlier that morning was approaching the finish. He was bent to the side at an extreme degree. He had a set of trekking poles (which were loaned to him by another runner), but could only use one. The other one was in his hand, which was braced against his quad. We found out later that until he got those trekking poles, he had been sort of flinging himself from tree to tree to get along. His finish was agonizing, but he did it. Everyone freaked out when he passed up a chair and sat right down on a curb. I have no idea how he got back up later.
Anne came through with a smile on her face, flanked by Caryn and Jeremy, who had waited for them about a half mile back. As soon as she crossed the finish and got her belt buckle, she sat down. It was then that the enormity of the adventure became evident on her face. All at once she looked tired. And hungry. But she also looked content and proud. Mama Anne is now a 100 mile finisher!! AND she hasn’t sworn off doing another one……
I loved crewing and pacing. I loved jumping in to help runners I didn’t even know. It felt great to “give back”. The whole experience, though, left me itching to get back to these long distances. Matt (the one who had Lyme) and I are planning to return to Oil Creek for the 100 next year. We’re also planning to take on the Laurel Highlands 70 in June and Labor Pains 12 hour in September. It should be a fun year for us idiots!