I Became An Ultra Marathoner
I woke up in the morning the day before the race and just could not get out of bed. I was so anxious. I couldn’t get out of bed and get the day underway. I just lay in bed thinking and trying to get a little more rest. There wasn’t anything much to be done. Finish packing the car and drop off our dogs at the kennel, then drive down to Pennsylvania to camp for the weekend and run a race. This was supposed to be a fun weekend. Then why was I so anxious in the morning?
I think that was exactly why I was so anxious. This was supposed to be a big weekend for me, a fun weekend camping trip with friends and running a race. Not just any race though. This was my goal race for the year. It was something new to me. I didn’t know what to expect for the weekend, so I tried to hide in bed I guess. Eventually I got myself up got packed and we got under way.
My wife and I arrived at camp the day before the race and had plenty of time to relax and unwind a little. Later that evening we met our friends at bib pick up for the race. Then we had dinner at a great local place, The Forksville General Store. The food was amazing. Just the thing you need the day before a big race. Then we went back to camp and spent the night hanging out by the fire and enjoying each other’s company. One by one we turned in to get some sleep before the race.
We all rose bright and early and headed over to the starting grounds for the race. We were there with plenty of time before the start of the race, which is fine and probably preferred by many, but for me standing around just waiting for something to happen makes me anxious. I prefer to be right on time and just start whatever it is I’m doing. So I was relieved when all the waiting and race director talking as over and the race started. The Worlds End 50k was under way. Finally my feet could start moving and my brain could stop.
I started the race out nice and easy as we ran down the road to get to where the trails started for this race. I was in no big hurry. I knew I’d be out here for plenty of time. When we got to the trails we started to climb. The first ascent is a pretty steep one. I am fine with going relatively slow up any climbs and that is really my strategy. Go slow up and conserve energy. But when there are spots that level out and there is room to run some I quickly got anxious and a little frustrated with the continued slow pace that was basically a walk. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. It was early on and I would have plenty of time to run, but I quickly found myself squeezing by people to pass o that I could go the pace that was comfortable for me. I didn’t want to go fast. I just wanted to go my own pace and I wanted space. I am sure some of the people I passed in the beginning because of my impatience passed me back later on.
After that came a nice descent. It is fairly steep but it is also fairly wide trail and open in many places. It was a great spot for me to be able to just open things up and run down the hill at whatever pace my legs would take me. When I have a nice open descent like that my preferred way to run them is to just go with gravity. I don’t necessarily try to run hard down the hill by pushing my legs fast but I try to allow my legs to move at whatever pace gravity is pulling me down the hill. When you are my size gravity does a lot of work and provides a good amount of momentum to propel you down the slope. It really doesn’t even seem like work. It’s more like just trying to coordinate your legs to keep up.
When you get to the bottom of that fast descent you start right back up the hill again. You climb right back up a mountain for about another mile. Then once you arrive at the top one of my favorite feature of this race was a nice relatively flat section at the top where I could just run whatever pace was comfortable for me. I didn’t have to push. I didn’t have to really fight with gravity. It was like a nice casual trail run compared to the first several miles. Then after a nice gradual descent there is another quick climb going into mile eight.
After mile eight there are several miles that are probably what I would call for this course most closely described as rolling hills would be on a road course except all the while you are navigating rocks, and roots, and plenty of mud. During this section you reach the second aid station, which is the first aide station that is crew accessible. There my wife awaits me with anything that I might need. Fortunately I still feel ok and don’t really need anything. I am plenty tired though despite it only being mile 10 of a 30+ mile run. I stop to eat some food at the aide station and talk to my wife for a little bit. My one remark was that “This is not Sehgahunda”, which is the race I ran two weeks prior and was my first ever trail marathon. That race was plenty challenging in its own right, but this was a whole new level. There I felt pretty good through 15 miles. Here I was tired by mile 10.
The next crew accessible aid station would not be until around mile 19. There was plenty of varied terrain to cover between mile 10 and 19 when I would be able to see my wife gain and I would stop and talk for a minute. From mile 11 to 19 I got to run just about every kind of terrain one could imagine. There were relatively flat sections. There were hills. And there were downhills. There were roots. There were rocks. There were boulders. There were plenty of wet areas as well. The water took many forms on this course: mud and muck, puddles, full on bogs and marshy areas, streams and even waterfalls. My favorite part of this section was the steep technical descent that takes you into the aide station at mile 19. We had previewed this section a few weeks before the race so I knew what was to come. But when we ran it then we had much fewer miles on our legs. I was not sure what I was going to be able to do after around 17 miles had already worn down my legs. My plan was to run down it as fast as I could. I was wearing my GoPro on its chest harness and I knew this was either going to be epic or an epic fail and either way I wanted video evidence of this experience. I paused for a second at the top of the section to start the video recording and then down I went. I ran down as fast as I could while maintaining control. I stepped from rock to rock. Over and around boulders. Dodging roots and outcroppings. Many of my strides were more like leaps from side to side over and around obstacles. Watching my footing and making sure to find safe purchase. I plummeted down the descent. One fellow runner heard my thundering strides down the slope and moved aside and called out to me “Good Luck” as I careened by. He sounded sarcastic but I took it in stride, said “Thanks” and flew by. I think he seemed dubious that I should be taking this approach to the downhill. I caught up to another fellow runner who had passed me a while ago and he quickly moved aside so I could bound past him as well. I loved that section because it was a true test not only of my stamina but of my ability on a difficult technical section and I gave it my all and went for it. It was a fun and exciting section of trail to run during a race that had plenty of sections that were grinding.
At the mile 19 aid station I stopped to change my socks to prevent blisters. I also refilled my water bladder and added two more Nuun hydration tablets for electrolytes. I also ate some food that was provided by the aid station. I took my time and rested some as I changed my socks and ate and drank. I talked with my wife for a minute and gave her a kiss and then I was on the move again.
The three miles from the aid station at mile 19 to the aid station at mile 22 were the most difficult miles of the entire race for me. It was three miles of virtually all vertical climbing. Climbing is what I am weakest at. I really felt the fatigue set in as I made this climb. More than two-thirds the way up I really started to lose my energy and my motivation. I was felt like the climb had defeated me mentally. I just felt like I had nothing left in the tank. I had two vanilla bean GU’s with me and I really was hoping not to use them but they had caffeine in them and I felt like I needed any energy boost I could get at the moment. I really did not enjoy eating that GU. I basically choked it down. But eating it accomplished the goal. It gave me enough energy to get to the aid station at the top of the climb. I was very happy to get to that aid station where I could once again see my wife and eat some real food. It definitely helped to boost my mood. I took my time at this aid station talking to my wife, gathering my strength, and getting my mind right for the rest of the journey. Initially I thought it as odd to have two crew accessible aide stations so close together, one at mile 19 and another one at mile 22, but I was very happy that it was planned that way after I went through it.
After mile 22 there was a good deal of varied terrain. There were downhill sections and uphill sections, but nothing too long or too steep in either direction. There was a combination of all the things that made this course great. Single track trails, trees, rocks, roots, mud, and water. To be perfectly honest after running for such a long time on such a tough course at this point everything kind of blurs together in the aftermath trying to remember it. All I know is that in the moment I was enjoying being out in the woods. I went over 8 hours without touching my cell phone. When was the last time I did that when I wasn’t asleep? This is what trail running is about. Getting out in nature and connecting with it. Enjoying the connection our body makes with nature as you traverse the course.
Finally I arrived at the final aid station. I wasn’t hungry so I didn’t eat any actual food, but I knew it still could be an hour before I finished so I did have some tailwind to top off my fuel for the finish. As I rested for a minute one of the many friendly volunteers at the aide station jokingly asked “What are you still doing here?” I said “I’m enjoying all the hard work you all have put into this aide station.” And he responded “Then you should have a beer.” I normally don’t drink beer at a race. I actually don’t know if I have ever had a beer at a race. So I stopped and considered for a second. Then I agreed. I should have a beer. I am almost done. What harm could it do at this point? I will almost certainly finish. I am here to enjoy myself and have fun. So I did have half a beer at the aide station before I left. Maybe it was just what I needed to get me to the finish.
After leaving the final aid station there is a long relatively flat section that looks like an old logging road or something. It is probably the most open and flat section of the whole course. I was so tired at that point. I could not keep up a steady pace to run, so I adopted a run walk strategy. Just pushing myself to run at all was a sheer force of will at that point so; I ran for as long as I could then I would walk some to recover and then pick up the run again and repeat over and over.
As I ran through this flatter section of trail I began to think. I thought about all the long hard hours of training I put into this. I thought about all the commitment and determination it took to arrive exactly at this point. I started to think about how this was the culmination of everything I have worked towards for the past six months. I began to get a little emotional as I ran along thinking all the deep thoughts one does when they finally realize that they are about to accomplish a huge goal that they have fully committed to. I felt the full weight of what this experience meant to me. It was fun and it was exciting and it was something I really wanted and I set my heart to it and I got it done. When I say I set my heart to it that is what I truly mean it took my heart and my will in order to get to this point. It is an achievement of a physical accomplishment, but it is not one you come to if your heart isn’t in it and if you don’t have the will to put in the work.
I knew from the course map and elevation profile that I would eventually come to a steep decent before getting to the finish. I was a little concerned about how that part would go for me. I usually like to go as fast as I can on downhills. I feel like it’s the best strategy for me for many reasons. But when I got to this particular decent I was spent. There was no way I could run down this. This was no strait open flat hill. This was a steep twisty turvy and rocky vertical decent. If I tried to go fast my legs would crumble underneath the pressure of my momentum building up. I decided my best course of action was to pick my way down through the rocks, going as fast as I could but far from a run. Going slow down a step decent was no picnic. My toes were smashed in the front of my shoes, but I finally made it down. I felt like I literally dragged myself for that last little bit to get to the finish line. I felt like I was barely moving as I crossed the finish line and I think the video my wife recorded of my finish verifies that fact.
I crossed the line and hugged my wife. I was finally done. I see my friends who were there, cheering. It was a great feeling.
Afterwards I was starving. The food was great. There was plenty of it and it tasted good. The beer was also the perfect thing after finishing a long race like that. It was a great post race experience to sit around and talk with your friends and cheer on runners you didn’t know as well as our other friends who finished. I told my friends I would do this race again just for the food.
I have run a fair amount of trails in our area and I have been out hiking even more trails and this area definitely ranks right up there as one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. I loved all the scenery. It was amazing. I ran the race with two GoPro cameras to try to capture some of the experience. I had one GoPro on a chest harness and another GoPro that could be hand-held. I could have just stood and taken photographs forever. Every twist and turn revealed something new and unexpected. I would take a video or some photos of a section and then turn my GoPro off and then around the next bend would be another section just as beautiful and I would think I should turn my camera back on. If I did that I would probably still be there taking photographs. When we came for a preview run of some of the course I told my friends that if I don’t finish it’s because I am still out on the course taking pictures. It is that beautiful.
If you are a nature lover like I am you need to get yourself out to the Worlds End State Park area in Pennsylvania. This area has just about everything one could ask for in nature scenery. You can hike up a trail to a scenic overlook and look out over the valley and across to another mountain that you can also hike up and be at the location you were just looking at from across the valley. There are endless scenic forest lands to wander through with all types of majestic trees. Throughout the entire landscape there are scattered rocks and outcroppings ranging from pebbles to giant boulders that you need to be on all fours to climb over. There are also many streams flowing through the woods and down the mountains. These streams create countless waterfalls that are just truly mesmerizing as they cross the green scape. There are sections of trail where you will cross the streams and waterfalls and you can get a real up close and personal look at them. There are so many I could not imagine how long it would take me to photograph them all, but I might go back and try some day. At the top of one mountain there is even a lake. Like really on top of all that amazing nature you get to run up to a mountain top lake. I’m telling you there is no shortage of beautiful sites in this area. The race course also has multiple sections where you run along a body of water that I am not sure if it is officially a creek or a river but it is big enough that you can dive right in and swim if you want. I know because I’ve done it.
How can you beat all this? I experienced all this amazing nature all in one day. This is the type of adventure that might take weeks to experience on a normal trip. But thanks to the gift of running and how fortunate I am to be able to do the things that I do I got to do all this in a bit over eight hours. Not weeks. I saw all those sights in a third of a day. I love how much running has added to my ability to explore nature and enjoy the other things that make life worth living and that is really why I love running.
It is just a unique experience to be out in that type of landscape. World’s End is such a varied place of unique treasures with something new around every turn. I don’t know if I will ever top this experience.
I know these photos don’t do the scenery I have described justice, so I will try to link to some photos taken by others at the event. Check out these photos by Brian: Worlds End Photos. There are also these photos from Rusty: Worlds End Photos.