Why write about a race that took over nine hours? Well, if we were at a party, and you asked about it, I might drone on and on for nearly that long, and you might end up wishing you had never asked. Or maybe you did run into me at a party, and you’d like to hear more, or maybe you haven’t run into me at a party, but maybe you are thinking about doing this race, and maybe you might like to hear about my experience there. Or maybe I myself, as an eighty-year-old, might wonder how a much younger me felt about it, and might remember this little corner of the internet in which we occasionally posted. If the latter is the case, Hellooo, 80-year-old-Paul!
In any case, in early September 2019, I ran the Pine Creek Challenge 100K – about 62 miles, about 12 miles farther than I had ever run before. I chose this one largely because we have spent good time on the Pine Creek Gorge rail trail on bikes, and it seemed fun to spend a while running there too. It also seemed low-key and not too large or too expensive. So I got up there the night before and pitched a tent near the starting line. The night was clear, the stars were amazing, many folks were hanging out in chairs by their cars and tents, and I had nice conversation with Paige, a friendly woman whose tent was near mine. What would it be like, I wondered, to live out of a car, driving from race to race, spending nights in the tent and long weekend days on the trail? Well, it might get old, I thought, but this is pretty sweet.
I was up early the next morning for mate and breakfast pizza, which I wanted to have in my stomach an hour or two before race time. I hung around to watch the hundred-milers start off before sunrise. The 100K started an hour later, meaning no headlamp was necessary. I was hoping to do a 10K every hour, meaning I’d be done well before dark. I also planned to take a one-minute walking break every ten minutes, so that when – inevitably – the time when I had to walk came, it wouldn’t feel like a defeat, but part of the grand plan.
There were, I think, a few folks doing a relay, which I only learned later. What I did know is that a few people started off way faster than I was comfortable going, and so I settled into 5th or 6th or 7th place, falling back a bit when, 9 minutes into the race, I took my first minute-long walking break. We did a few out & backs on the upper 5 miles of the rail-trail, and so early on we were met by the 100-milers coming the other way. The front two seemed like they were doing about 7-minute-mile pace, a sign that either they were seriously fast, or that rough times were ahead (or, perhaps, both).
The first aid station was a little comical, as I waited about a minute to use a portapot. I left my water-bottle outside when I went in, and then heard a discussion about whose bottle was left behind, and if someone should carry it on. “It’s mine! In here!” I yelled, and the bottle was left alone. Six of my 62 miles took over ten minutes, all of them at aid stations. This was one of those, and even though I knew there were 57 miles to go, I hurried out of the portapot and the aid station quickly, feeling like time was a-wasting. The result was that I ran the next mile in 8:03, the fastest of the day, but soon enough I settled back into regular pace.
And so the miles went by, the walking breaks keeping me from getting carried away by impatience or high energy. I hit 10 miles in 1:30:03, right on schedule. After the aid station in the 16th mile, we were joined by local cross country teams out on a morning run. This was sweet, as some of the kids seemed awed by the distances we were doing. It’s nice to feel impressive to someone. Between 15 and 20 miles I began yo-yoing with Lucas and Brandon, falling back every time I walked and catching up in between breaks. We knew that we were in 2nd-4th, with a younger guy way ahead. We got to 20 miles in 2:59:35, almost exactly the pace of the first ten, but without the minute in the portapot. I didn’t spend much time at the 22.4-mile aid station, walking off with food, waiting for Lucas and Brandon to catch up. Lucas made a comment about us being the lead pack. “What about the young guy?” I asked. “He’s right here”, Lucas said. This was Andrew, who had stopped at the aid station to take care of some blisters.
None of us had ever won an ultramarathon, so there was some joking about us being the elite lead pack. This was ideal: the feeling of being at the front of the race, but not alone looking over your shoulder to see if anyone is catching you. We were all still together at the Darling Run aid station, but Andrew dropped off soon after – with that fast start, I didn’t know if he was going to finish. We went by the marathon distance in about 3:56; it was amazing how easy that felt compared to the 36+ miles still to go. 30 miles came and went in 4:29:40, another ten miles in 90 minutes, like clockwork. Soon after that the 50K mark (halfway!) showed up at 4:40, only a few minutes slower than my 50K PR from 1998 (note to self: set a new 50K PR!). It seemed like doing the second half that fast would be impossible, but going under ten hours was certainly in play.
By now Lucas and Brandon were joining me in my minute-long walking breaks. I could tell by their breathing that they were working harder than I was, and soon after that Lucas dropped back. I was pretty sure I would pull away at some point, but I was not in any hurry to make that happen. At the 33-mile aid station – with 8 miles to the next one – I had extra water and gatorade (I mixed them 50/50 most of the day), pickles, and potatoes and salt. At aid stations, I try to never eat something I don’t eat in regular life – simple and not sweet is always better.
Somewhere around 34.5 miles, Brandon dropped off, and now came the difficult part. The miles had had a way of going by between 8.5 and 9 minutes, even with the minute walking break, but at this point a few of them were starting to creep into the low 9s. From here on, the race felt totally different; just me and my brain and body. Just before the 40 mile mark, I went from 9 minutes running / 1 minute walking to 7 minutes running / 1 minute walking. 40 miles came in 6:02:31 – notice, a little more than 90 minutes for 10 miles. I ran past the aid station in Blackwell, almost missed the turnaround (just a little sign by the side of the trail) and came back for more fluids, more pickles, more salt, and about 8 new potatoes which I put in one of the back pockets of my shirt. I was pulled onward by the idea that Brandon may be catching me (he seemed only about 3 minutes behind at the turnaround), by the encouragement of folks going the other way, and by the idea of a 50 mile PR. At some point I went to 4 minutes running / 1 minute walking, but the miles still went by in around 9 minutes each. 50 miles came in a new PR of 7:38:13 (again, a little slower for these 10), faster than an 8:05 at the much-hillier Tussey Mountainback in 2015.
I walked for 2 or 3 minutes after the 51-mile aid station; mile 51 was in 13:47, the slowest of the day. In my head, I was making projections about potential finish times, seeing how much I could fall apart and still break ten hours, tracking what fraction of the total distance I had covered (math note: Farey sequences with denominators <21), and counting down how long until the next walking break. Each time I started running again was a small victory, and each time I told myself that I only had to run for 4 minutes. Miles before, I had picked up a packet of chocolate-covered espresso beans, and I gave myself one of these every few miles. I was occasionally passing runners from the other races, who all seemed to be going a lot slower than I was.
Even at the Darling Run aid station, with about 3 miles to go, I didn’t feel I was home free. I hit 60 miles in 9:15:21 (even slower for these ten!). Each time the walking break ended, starting to run was more challenging. Really, though, it wasn’t excruciating – evidently I had planned and prepared well, and held the pattern for the last few hours. I finally saw the town of Asaph approach, soon followed by the turn to the USGS station. I tried to speed up a little at the end, and crossed the finish line in 9:37:03, or 9:15 per mile pace. I was congratulated by the race directors, who told me mine was the second fastest time ever run (by a man – the amazing Neela D’Souza has run faster than that twice at Pine Creek) at the 100K. I realize that this wasn’t a terribly competitive race, especially with the talent pool spread out over 50 mile, 100K, and 100 mile distances, but it is nice to put up a time that should stay in the top ten on the ultrasignup results page for at least a few years.
Paige, who I had camped next to the night before, had finished the 50 mile about 10 minutes before, and we chatted with the race directors as I enjoyed lying back in the sun and thoroughly enjoyed the idea that I didn’t have to run another step that day. Brandon came in second, about 48 minutes behind me, and we all ate soup and cheered others as they came in. Andrew and Lucas both eventually finished, 6th and 12th in 12:20 and 13:35, respectively. After races I have often looked ruefully at results, noting folks I was with who finished much better than I did, so there was some satisfaction in holding the pace better than the others in the lead pack.
The winner of the 100-mile race finished in 17:42, meaning that if I had managed to cover 38 more miles in 8:05, I could have won that race. I think, though, about how good it felt to stop after 62 miles, and how, at 50 miles, it would have felt to be only half done instead of 12 miles from the finish. So…I think a 100 mile race is somewhere in my future. Somewhere. For now, though, I will be pleased with this race, one in which everything somehow went according to plan.