Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ghosts in the Trees

What follows is a detailed account of a one hundred (100) mile excursion that occurred throughout the daytime and nighttime and also daytime hours of October 10-11, 2016. I have done my best to be accurate, not exaggerate and view the events through the eyes and mindset of the individual who accomplished the task as it took place. It is rambling and I understand if you never make it past the first sentence. If nothing else is drawn from this jumble of words, the point of it is this: challenge yourself. You may not make it the first time, so try again. Conquer your doubts and set your goals high. In the end, I think, it is worth the pain.

It was the Oil Creek 100 that introduced me to ultra running. At the time I was training for my first road marathon, a daunting enough challenge for a runner relatively new to distance running. The idea of running 100 miles seemed unfathomable at the time, however I had agreed to pace a friend through the last 17 miles of his third loop of the course. My wife and I arrive late on the cold October night in 2011 to find Matt in bad shape. His then wife was preparing to head out on the trail with him, which I knew would be a detriment to his finish, as she was a complete non-runner. I had not yet developed the ability to say no or allow another to suffer, so I laced up my Salomons and headed out for an all night hike over the gorgeous, challenging, haunting course. It was the first I had traveled that far on my feet as well as the first I had seen the sun come up through a pine forest after moving all night long. My recollection of much of the night is now all but washed away, filled in with more recent, more personal accomplishments. I do remember the pain, I remember the elation of Matt's triumph as we walked him across the finish line. I remember climbing the ridges of Oil Creek State Park and seeing the headlamps of other runners, suffering, battling, surviving, seeking what it is that we seek in the forest at night. They were ghosts in their own right. Ghosts made of sweat and spent curses, lumbering toward the finish of their challenge, whatever the outcome.

I was hooked. My unexpected participation cost me my first marathon as I struggled in at over 4 and a half hours, but it had sparked my interest in something that has, at times, dominated my life.

I returned to OC in 2013 after running my longest race to that date, the Laurel Highlands 70.5 mile run. I've covered that debacle previously. I was left with an unmet goal that burned in the back of my mind.

In 2016 I found myself in the position to attempt the race again. My training, as is usually the case, was lack luster. However, working the midnight shift, coupled with post-shift long runs and steady heat training left me in a good place mentally and so-so physically. Sleep deprivation was the main goal of my training.

I packed the truck, preparing for this race like have not prepared before. I picked up Kel and Coryn, my crew, and dropped the pups off at the parent's house for the weekend. The pup situation was one of the mental factors that led to my 2013 DNF; I knew my boxador was sitting at home in her crate all night with noone else in the house and it wasn't fair to her. With everything at home squared away, we met Todd Lewis and Ralph Smith and set out for Titusville. A couple of pit stops including three grown men urinating in the weeds along route 36 and we arrived. Packets were retrieved, camp was set, food and beverages were enjoyed at the Blue Canoe and it was time for bed. It was a relatively sleepless night, punctuated by dancing toddlers running through our camp, mother's searching for said toddlers and a gas generator that I still can't fathom why it was running at 9 pm.

Morning came early and humid. It hadn't rained as hard as the weather man had predicted and the cold front that was to have moved through in the evening hours hadn't. The heat and humidity had also played a large factor in my previous DNF, leading to crippling chaffing and blisters within the first twenty miles. The runners congregated in the gym, the pre-race talk was given and we filed out the doors to the start. The energy was positive and the race start came very quickly, my own loud mouth drowning out all but the "3...2...1!" We were off and down the long, dark bike path at a steady trot. Todd, Ben and I had all agreed in the weeks leading up to the race to stay together as much as possible on the first loop to keep each other in check. We also had the pleasure of picking up Perry Ligon to join our tribe as we began the conga line hike up the first climb towards Wolfkeil aid station. Lots of conversation and joking made the first seven miles fly by and we found ourselves in one of my favorite parts of the course: an open section of pines that reminds me of trips to Maine with my family. Before I shooed these memories from my mind we were looking for birthdays on the large calendars that led into AS1, eating grapes, relieving bowels and bladders and headed up the switchback climb out of Wolfkeil.
The group was doing well and feeling great heading up the hills. Todd had trained incessantly for this race. This was his fourth attempt at a 100 mile buckle and he had prepared mentally and physically, pounding out somewhere around 1,600 running miles in preparation. As we began climbing a short section of trail, Todd laid down the hammer. I heard a faint, "What are you doing, Todd?" come from Perry in an attempt to reel Todd in and keep him in check. It worked, sort of, as we rolled into Petroleum Center, AS2, at 8:15 am. This was 45 full minutes ahead of schedule for Perry. I knew it was too fast for me, but even with all my preparations for this race, I did not have solid split times. I like to leave some things open to change to meet the situations and conditions of race day. Also, split times tend to freak me out, especially when I fall apart and fall far behind where I should be late in races.
Kel, Coryn and Tony Berger were all waiting for me with chair, lube and a change of shirt. Having a solid crew and a beautiful woman waiting for you at key points in the race is a great motivator. I used Kelly as fuel to quit hiking and run all throughout the race, getting me back to her quicker. The humidity was still thick and my tape I thought was the answer to my chaffed nipples had failed me, it was a sore disappointment. I threw down a couple of hard boiled eggs, changed shirts and headed out with Todd, worried I hadn't spent enough time or replaced enough calories at the aid station. I hadn't.
Perry decided here he needed to eat more and we pulled out of the aid station without he and Ben, who had made a pit stop earlier. Heisman Hill was next and we hiked it well. Section 3 is arguably the most runnable section of trail on the course, with long double track grades and downhills. The boy scouts also have a way station set up at a permanent camp that provides water and warm bodies to talk to late in the night. It was near the camp that I decided to let Todd go a little. He was running fast and feeling great; I was calorie depleted and hadn't trained to sustain the pace I was running this early on. I kept up, for the most part, until Miller Rd., AS3, where I stopped to shove far too much food down my throat. They had it all: vegan wraps, ham wraps, breakfast wraps, general aid station fare and Swiss Rolls. Until this year, I detested Swiss Rolls; however I guess there is something about sleeping in the basement of the barracks on a couch that has God-knows-what kind of stains on it every other night that broadens your horizons. For me, this meant I discovered that there isn't a Tasty Cake or Little Debbie I don't like. I also discovered you can still watch Johnny Carson on some obscure channel at midnight, but this might be an isolated, Lewistown thing. One might also draw the parallel between my late night, post shift face shoving and the excessive weight gain of Winter/Spring '16.
The climb out of AS3, Cemetery Hill, is short and steep, ascending past the graveyard and onto the ridge. A secondary climb, I believe it's called Rockefeller's Revenge, is by far the longest climb on the course, or so it seams while you're trudging up it. It's not that the climb is overly steep, it just doesn't quit. The course again passes through beautiful sections of pines and empties out into a deciduous section of forest, which marks the beginning of the descent to the Drake Well loop. Along the way, the course passes the last climb of the race on the 7 mile Going Home loop. I've never taken note of that trail and had no idea what awaited on that last 7 miles, and when it came time to tackle it, I was glad I didn't know. The powerline crossing means there is less than a mile to the bottom.
The Drake Well loop was reached and run, knowing I had to complete it only two more times. The bike path, the last mile or so of each loop, is the most mentally punishing section of the course. Maybe it is because it is run twice each loop, maybe it is the pavement, maybe it i the length. Whatever it is, I despise the bike path the most of any section of the course.
At the end of the first loop I changed clothes in the locker room, ate, lubed up and headed back out with Perry after watching Ben come in. Perry and I walked the bike path and reached the single track, where we took out time on climbs and trotted the flats. I pulled away slightly and reached AS1 alone, enjoying some noodles and broth. Perry and I again pulled out together, along with two female 100K runners. At this point I wasn't in the mood for conversation and I could feel myself slipping further into my head. I began thinking about the race as a whole instead of sections. By the time I reached Petroleum Center for the second time I had almost completely lapsed into negativity. My feet were killing me and I was still looking beyond the moment at the whole race. However, everything was starting to come together now. The weather was cooling, I changed into a brand new pair of perfectly firm Hokas and slathered on the lube with Kelly using a blanket to shield the general public from the offense of Open Lewdness. I was hurting so much by now I didn't quite recognize the near perfect race conditions and pulled out of AS2 in a foul mood. The climb wasn't so bad and I made it to the boy scout camp fairly easily. By now I had entered into my state of near constant solitude, falling back into the back third of the pack. Knowing this, I put in my headphones and let my unmentionable guilty musical pleasures carry me through for a few miles. A scout leader gave me his last fun size Crunch bar which I took and offered me a swig of his half drunk Pepsi which I declined. The section following is where I fell apart. I got hooked up with three guys who were hiking, seemingly for the duration. I got lulled into the idea that if they can hike and finish then so can I. It hadn't crossed my mind that they may drop or get swept. At this point I thought I couldn't run any longer. I merely shuffled into AS3, sat for so long that they kicked me out  (14 minutes) and struggled through the last section. On the climb past the graveyard I heard a group of what I believe to be females screaming at the very top of their lungs for a very long time. I tried to think what lay below us on that side f the ridge and couldn't figure anywhere an aid station could be. I had to confirm that other runners coming up behind me had also heard the screaming to ensure I wasn't hallucinating. I wasn't, and we couldn't figure on where the screaming had come from.
I slowly, grudgingly completed the Drake loop and the bike path, coming into the school to find Todd Dishong cold and ready to get moving. Another lube up and we were moving very, very slowly. We made it out the bike path and started the short paved climb to the singletrack. We reached the dark section of trail and I turned on my headlamp, only to have it immediately shut down. I had used up the batteries and had left my secondary light at Petroleum Center. All I had now was a 40 lumen hand torch to dimly light the muddy, rocky trail. I was starting to fall asleep while walking and sat down for a few minutes, then laid down for exactly four minutes. Todd pushed me on, telling me stories about past ultras. A short while later I again sat down on the side of the trail and nearly begged Todd to let me sleep for twenty minutes. The answer was no, but he promised a short nap when we reached Woflkeil, where he could get a warm drink. Section 1 took an eternity. I couldn't run, I could barely stand and I had reached what would be the depth of my mental degradation. The aid station just wouldn't appear. In the absence of other runners and conversation I could hear the cheers of the aid station deep in the valley below us and at times see the light, but we still had miles to slog through to get there. Finally my dim light rested on the sign for the Wolfkeil Descent and we were again at the bottom, passing the giant calendars for the final time. I immediately hit the bench, stretched out, confirmed my twenty minute allotment with Todd and promptly fell asleep. After what I later found out was 14 minutes, Todd woke me and told me to get going. I asked for 4 more minutes, and he bartered it down to 2. I stretched out my legs and sat up, realizing that Perry had also come into the station while I was napping. I ate a cup of noodles, stood and we headed out, Perry, another runner named Terry and his pacer, Mark, in tow.
Todd is a firm believer in the North American Bigfoot, or Sasquatch. Earlier, he had pointed out a formation of trees to me that would mark where a squatch had perished. For reference, a forked tree with another resting in the crook of the V is the formation we had seen. Somehow, during our conversation, the memorial formation came up. Mark, it turned out, is also a connoisseur of squatches. Wood knocks, calls and different squatch facts, that research has proven, were discussed. Loudly. After stating that the only state of the original 50 that had not had a squatch sighting was Hawaii, Mark was quickly corrected and reminded of the giant Hawaiin,  Israel Kamakawiwo'Ole. Israel sweetly sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow with his ukulele and, prior to his unfortunate death, was being studied as a possible link between man and squatch. Look him up.
We pulled away from Mark and Terry, just far enough to stop and make some wood knocks and for Todd to bellow out his squatch call. I can imagine hearing it elsewhere in the woods could be slightly unnerving in the early morning pitch blackness.
The conversation and my nap had lifted my spirits and gave me the strength, mostly mental, to move with a purpose. I was closing in on falling back to only one hour before cutoff and realized I needed to pick it up or be swept. We passed one last time under the oil derricks coming down off the ridge, across the hard road, up the small rise and once more onto the dirt road. We slogged across the bridge and I fell into my chair, Kel and company freezing. It was cold at Petroleum Center, colder than the rest of the course, from what I could tell. The geography and the river hold the cold tight. It was cold and damp, a deadly combo if you sit too long. As I sat, I watched two people drop, the Ham radio operator calling it out through the dark. I'd never been this far before. Seventy miles through the Laurel Highlands was my previous accomplishment. At this point, even with the climbs I knew lay ahead, and the one I didn't,  I was glad to not be on that rock strewn stretch of single track. I sat, bundled up in the blanket that was spattered about with blister juice and my feet propped up on my box of supplies. I promptly nodded off and kicked my box over. I stood and Coryn and I headed off for the last climb up Heisman Hill. I had slowed again, hiking the climbs.
I could out think the pain and focus in on something else to alleviate the burning in the soles of my feet. We ran when we could and hiked when I couldn't. We quickly cruised through the boyscout aid station and down onto the single track. This was the last I stopped. I don't know if Coryn said it or my slow churning mind pieced it together, but there was no point in going slow. Everything hurt and everything would hurt no matter how fast or slow we went. By now we'd been passed by people I knew I could hold off. We had come to the long descent toward the rail tracks and we switched it on. I'm unsure of the actual pace, but it felt like we flew down the hill and to the tracks. We passed Terry and Mark again and started to make up time. The next climb we traded Talladega Nights quotes with two guys, one who could imitate the French guy from the movie perfectly. It was another perfectly timed pick me up that spurred us up the climb. Coryn kept me moving with conversation and the promise of a nap I knew I couldn't afford. We cruised into AS3 for the last time under cover of dark. It was 0645 hrs. and we had gained about 15 minutes. I had pierogies and cheesy tators, drank as much ginger ale as I could and headed up Cemetery Hill for the last time.
I had been telling myself that since the turnoff of where the fourth loop heads back. The last time. This is it. You don't have to do this climb again. You don't have to see these trees again. This bridge won't try to make you slip again. You'll never...see this face... again! (King Curtis. Look him up.) With that in mind we crawled up the hill to the sign that reads six miles to the Drake Well.
We traveled over the bridges and streams, through the pines and into a slow dawn. We hadn't reached the deciduous trees yet, but the promise of the sun spurred us on.
Now for some uncomfortable details. I had managed to urinate the entire race. I had drank better than I had in any other race I ever ran. I even managed to keep it pretty clear. One thing I had not been able to accomplish prior to the previous day's start was the ceremonial pre-race poop. It had quickly come to my attention, however, that I needed to evacuate the bowels now. Right now. I tried to make it to the Drake Well loop, to the porta john like a decent human being. However, keeping with tradition, I couldn't. The cover was sparse at the power line where I made my stand and lost the battle of the bubble guts. The little bit of brush I felt comfortable walking to did nothing to shield my tired ass from oncoming runners. I thought I had enough time; I thought it would be quick and no one would be any the wiser. I was wrong. I heard the conversation and the sticks breaking. Before I could recover I heard, "Oh, there's a butt down there." Luckily for them, the deed was done, sparing them a truly scarring experience. We followed them off the hill into the Drake Well loop where I stopped with them for water. The red headed male with the thousand yard stare held the spigot as I knelt down and drank from the nozzle. I asked them then, did you see my butt? To which they answered in the affirmative.
The last time for the Drake Well loop. Four more goes at the bike path. Once more through AS4. We were close. On our trip up the bike path we passed Todd and Ralph one last time. "Catch me!" Todd said as we passed. Yeah right. He had cruised through this race, year number four for him. This was Todd's year and his training had paid off greatly. I made it back to my seat and was greeted by Kel and Danny Mowers, who had taken second in the 100K hours and hours ago. I stood and headed out for the last time. My fire was waning thin by now and the bike path beat me up. We reached the single track off the bike path and made it to the turn without falling. Coryn scoured through the empty water jugs for the dregs of water that I needed as I sat. We heard no one behind and no one ahead. I was again in unknown territory, relying on my poles to push me forward and carry me up the hills. We passed a male and female runner, crossed the suspension bridge and came to the Hill of Truth. I didn't know anything about loop 4. If I had known what was waiting at mile 94, I would have defeated myself mentally miles and miles ago. We started climbing and kept on climbing. I accidentally informed the two runners behind that we were at the top when we had approximately 3/4 mile left to climb. Switchback after switchback came and was covered until we reached familiar trail and cruised back to the Drake Well and up the path for the last time. Kelly met us at the end of the path and video taped us as we slogged toward the finish line.
Here we were. Three of us running toward the end of a journey that five years ago I couldn't fathom. We crossed the bridge and the finish was in sight. I dug my poles hard into the pavement and pushed forward toward the finish, Todd, Ralph, Ben and my buckle. I owe my buckle to my crew and my pacers. Without them, I wouldn't have even bothered coming up and I wouldn't have continued on through the dark. I felt like I was flying across the ground; more like floating. I didn't feel pain. My eyes welled up but held back the flood. With my crew behind me, I crossed the finish line in just under 31 hours. Hands were shaken, hugs were given, and finally the buckle was placed in my hand. It felt like it weighed ten pounds, a good heft. Relief flowed over me like I had never felt before.
This was my adversary, my only DNF. I had come back and with a lot of help from those I love very much I finished what I started.
I know I just said it, but I owe my buckle and my finish to my crew and pacers: Kelly, Todd Dishong and Coryn. Thank you all. I am in your debt.
We came to Oil Creek for the atmosphere and the challenge and neither disappointed. The race is executed flawlessly each time I've attended. The course is impeccably marked, the aid stations are stocked to the gills and the volunteers are top notch.
Congratulations to Todd Lewis, who conquered the course in 30 hours flat! On the nose! Without Todd, I wouldn't have come back this year and maybe never would have. Thanks for your support and example of dedication.
Congratulations to all finishers. To every DNF, there is always next year and I hope you take the opportunity to see the challenge through. From someone who experienced the same thing and finally overcame: it is worth the struggle.

I won't be doing those loops again any time soon. I highly doubt I'll complete the four loops for the hundred. I know them well and they have my respect, probably too well.

It's late Fall now and the race schedule for next year is filling up. It's been three weeks of recovery: bike rides and slow runs. Bloody urine and a slight bout of post-goal depression. Looking forward always helps shake off the dirt and prepare for the next thing.

We have a sickness, a dysfunction. We are not normal. We go into the woods for our own purposes and find ourselves there. We fight ourselves there over the long hours and dark trails lit up by only our headlamp; sometimes we even win.

1 comment:

  1. Well written ..feels as if I watched from the trail with you..I have read about desert ultras and the heat but the climbs and mountains seem a tougher foe..I hope to read more of your adventures and maybe cross paths with one day..thanks for a glimpse into your world..