Sunday, October 21, 2012

Oil Creek 100 Mile Ultra




Middle of Leg 1.
This past weekend I traveled to Titusville, PA, to run the Oil Creek 100 mile trail race. I went to run with my brother Jim and friend Sonya, who were making their first attempt at a race longer than 50 miles. They chose Oil Creek because of the proximity and the time of the year was convenient. I wanted to support them in some way but was originally thinking I would just crew and pace them. After talking to Jim about it, he said his preference was for me to run the whole thing with them. After my disasters at Massanutten and Laurel Highlands, I was a little reticent to sign up for another 100 mile race, but eventually did it. 

This was back in June, and as time went on, I wavered between pacing and running it all. After a tough 50K on the Allegheny Front Trail at the end of July I became even more convinced that pacing would be the best option. My training this fall then went downhill and I was struggling to hit 30 mile weeks since mid-August. The double-whammy of coaching high school soccer and my job at the school district, which is always ridiculously busy in August through October, had me struggling to get adequate sleep and still train for an ultra. Then I ran the Megatransect Trail Marathon two weeks ago and I had no legs starting at 12 miles and bonked hard at 20 miles. Towards the end of that run I made up my mind that I would only pace at Oil Creek. I just didn't have the legs to do a 100.

End of leg 1.
When I got home from the Mega and sat around for a couple hours, I started to second guess that decision. So there I was, on Friday evening, at the Titusville Middle School, picking up my race packet with Jim and Sonya and thinking nervously about what the morning would bring. After a decent, although somewhat restless night of sleep, I woke up at 3:30am, ate my Cheerios, and got ready for the day.

Giving a colorful leaf I found on the trail to my
Great-Nephew Jaren (I am old).
The morning was clear and cold, with the temperature around 23 degrees and a bit of a breeze going. The Oil Creek course consists of three 50K loops of the same trail followed by a 7.7 mile loop to finish. There are four aid stations: the start/finish area at the school, about 7.5 miles to aid station #1, another 7 miles to aid station #2 (where there is crew access), about 8.5 miles to aid station #3, and then another 8 miles back to the middle school. The course is mostly single-track, with a little double-track thrown in, and a couple miles of every loop are a paved bike path between the middle school and the trailhead.


Jim is still smiling at the end of leg 1.
At 5am, we walked out of the middle school, the horn sounded and we were off. Jim and Sonya's race strategy had them looking at about a 27 hour or so finish. When I first heard this a month earlier, I was a bit scared as this was completely uncharted territory for me. I have never run past 22 hours and the thought of having to be on my feet for at least another 5 hours had me concerned. It seemed to me it would be much more difficult because of accumulated fatigue and possible sleepiness. But in this race, I was just along for the ride so I tried to prepare myself for a long one. I just hoped my legs would hold up and my stomach would cooperate (it never does). Secretly I hoped to try to bring them home at a quicker pace than they were anticipating.

We started off at an easy pace. I told them to not even think about going below a 9 minute per mile pace, even at the beginning, and to walk all the ascents. We hit the trailhead towards the back of the pack and began the first climb. The trail is nice single-track from the start. It basically climbs to the top of the ridge, runs along the top with rolling ups and downs, and then drops you back down into an aid station. Each leg is similar in this way and there are four legs. We all agreed that leg three was our favorite. It has some really nice sections of double track that run through hemlock groves and it is just beautiful. The deciduous trees were colorful and the falling leaves around us were a nice touch. By the time we got back to the start/finish area, the temperature had warmed up to be in the 40s.

We ran the first two 50K loops pretty well. Jim had some IT band trouble starting during the second loop, so anything that was steeply downhill began to present some difficulty, but overall we were making good progress. Sonya was also having some pain behind her one knee that started to bother her and affect her stride (turned out to be a strained hamstring). The first lap was completed in about 7:30 and the second lap in about 8:10, which is about a 15:16/mile overall pace. Jim and Sonya had planned on about a 27 or 28 hour finish so this was right in line with that and left a lot of wiggle room to get in under the 32 hour limit. The best part for me was that I had no stomach trouble up to this point. Generally I have had my problems before mile 62 so I was quite pleased with how I felt. During the second lap I did start to feel bad when I sat down too long. I actually felt better when we left the aid stations and were on the move again.
Picking up our pacer, Jason.

My nephew Jason was going to pace us for the last 39 miles and he was waiting for us when we pulled in at the end of the second loop. We took a little time at this aid station to change clothes and shoes, use the facilities and eat. It was about 9pm and we knew we would see the next sunrise before finishing the third loop. I sat here again while changing shoes and waiting for the others, and again I started to feel kind of bad. The miles and the time on my feet were starting to take their toll. The thought did enter my mind about how nice it would be to just stop here and call it a day, but it was a fleeting thought because I wanted to help Jim and Sonya in any way that I could to finish and I really felt good enough that I didn’t have a good reason to quit. The idea of leaving a warm place for another 12 hours of running when you could be sleeping is a bit daunting.

But eventually we all started out again. It was great to have Jason along, because he was a fresh pair of legs and a fresh mind. The psychological impact of picking up a pacer, especially at night I believe, is huge. We were all tired and he had fresh conversation and a certain perkiness that helped to carry us along. The going started to get slower as we got into the first leg. The miles were adding up for all of us (except Jason). The night running also made it more difficult. 

We discovered at the beginning of the race that Sonya had won the battle of the lumens. Jim had the dimmest light, I had a 100 lumen lamp, and Sonya showed up with the Daymaker 5000 (okay I made that up), a 200 lumen, 4 AA battery monster of a light. I literally got sunburn on the back of my legs from her following me during the night, honest. Okay, that is a lie, but only barely.

We went through aid station 1 okay and started the monster climb on leg 2. This is where the race started to get interesting. First Sonya went silent and I could tell she was dealing with some kind of demons. We had to walk more. As we got closer to the second aid station, I talked with her and she said she was feeling dizzy and really sleepy.  I told her she needed Coke or Mt. Dew and some quick sugar (Peanut butter cups or M&Ms) for a quick hit as well as some longer lasting carbs to sustain her. And then the rain started, about 3 miles or so from aid station 2. It was a soaking rain that was steady and unrelenting. Fortunately, the night temperatures never got below 50 so the rain didn't make it too cold and miserable. We pulled into aid station 2 wet and tired and woozy (Sonya).

We spent some time at aid station 2. They had a heater and Sonya sat down beside it and we started to load her up with sugar and caffeine. I was still feeling okay and was able to eat well. I didn’t change clothes because I figured I would just get wet right away again. The rain did not stop. Sonya started to feel better and we left aid station 2 for the last time.

We made some decent time initially but then it got slow again. Jim was pretty silent by this time and wrestling with his demons (and IT band). Jason and I were involved in conversation and it helped to pass the time. This was the nicest leg of the race but in the dark it was impossible to tell. Halfway into the leg Sonya started to bonk again and she had to tough it out into aid station 3. The rain finally started to subside as we got close to the aid station. This time I told Sonya to do the same thing as before but to take chocolate with her so she could keep putting it down and hopefully hold off another bonk. This aid station had pancakes and I enjoyed some.

We left for the last leg of the circuit and with a steady dose of chocolate Sonya was good for the whole leg, except her hamstring became more of a problem. At this point we were basically hiking it in, but it looked like we were still in good time to get under 30 hours, if nothing majorly bad happened. It was getting light again so the hiking/running became a little easier, although the rain had made the trail muddy. We made it without any major issues back to the start/finish area and only had 7.7 miles to go.

Walking in the final mile with crew in tow.
It was not as difficult for me to leave this time because the daylight and the fact that I knew we only had about 2 hours to go had lightened my spirit. I was still eating well and not feeling sleepy. I went into the school to use the bathroom and saw local trail runner Ashley Moyer sitting in there eating breakfast. I had heard from someone at aid station 2 that she had won the women’s race and was third overall in 19.5 hours. I went over and congratulated her and talked for a few seconds before continuing on. She took 5 hours off her previous year’s time and set the course record. It was a fantastic race for her. Now I don’t feel so bad about her beating me at the Mega two weeks before. She is in great shape.

We headed back out for the last loop. I started to get delirious and sang loudly all of the lyrics I could think of (which is rather limited) from a cornucopia of songs. I was feeling good and getting stronger. Soon we hit the “Hill of Truth” and I decided I had to run up it all while talking to it. Jason was behind me and thought I had lost my marbles because he heard me talking to nobody. Maybe I had. I waited at the top and when everyone was up we soon hit the trailhead and there our support crew was waiting. It is a little over a mile from the trailhead to the finish and we walked it in with everyone. It was a good way to finish. An 1/8 of a mile from the finish, we tried to jog it in, with limited success, but finished together in 29:33:58.

Sonya smiling at the finish line.
Jim and Sonya were hurting, but 100 mile finishers! It is an amazing accomplishment and a triumph of perseverance and the mind over the body. I was happy to get my ultra mojo back. I was certainly tired but felt pretty well overall. My feet were beat up more than anything else. I had a number of blisters that were bugging me for the last 30 miles. Before the race, when I realized we were going to see two sunrises, I was anxious about what that kind of time would do to me. In the end, I felt better than I ever have for a whole 70 mile or longer race. Now the only question is, was it the slower pace or the cooler weather? I wish I knew. I suspect both contributed, but is one more important than the other? I was able to eat well at every aid station and never really had any kind of stomach distress. That was great!

My food for the race included (approximately):
  • 1/2 PBJ
  • 5 grilled cheese sandwiches
  • 3 pancakes with syrup
  • 1 slice of cold pizza
  • 1 banana
  • 1/2 tall can of Pringles
  • 4 ounces of peanut M&Ms
  • 72 ounces of Ramen with chicken broth
  • 36 ounces of soda (Coke, Ginger Ale and Mt. Dew)
  • 130 ounces of water
  • 2 Endurolyte tablets (electrolytes)
  • 4 Gu packets

I will definitely consider running Oil Creek again, although maybe not the 100 miler. A 50K and 100K are also available. The trail is beautiful, the start/finish area at the middle school is great, and the volunteers/aid stations are fantastic. It was a great adventure.

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