Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon (RACE REPORT)

Over the past weekend Little Pine State Park played host to the 1st Annual Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon, a devious part of the Eastern States 100 weekend in Central Pa.  On the website members of the race committee describe the course as "tougher than the Mega (though not as technical), and mile for mile steeper and more elevation than Hyner" I've never run the Megatransect, but based on my experiences at Hyner (Race Reports: 2014, 2013) such a description would seem to be correct. I'd even go so far as to say The Call of the Wilds is tougher than the Green Monster 50k (Race Report), which up until this point easily topped my list of toughest race experiences. Here is how the weekend went down...

I must admit that I wasn't taking The Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon entirely seriously. It’s a Central Pennsylvania race. It was going to be tough as nails, period. But I had no race goals of my own. Back in June I'd cooked up the idea of running Call of the Wilds on August 16th, and the Catharine Valley Half Marathon (RACE REPORT) on August 17th as back to back training runs aimed at preparing me for the Pine Creek Challenge 100k. I intended to run/hike Call of the Wilds as one half of “Team Maria and Brian,” and then turn around the next morning and pace my sister Ann Marie through her first half at Catharine Valley. I expected to spend 9 to 10 low intensity hours on my feet on Saturday, and another two on Sunday.

Things changed very suddenly on Saturday morning. Literally, while standing at the start line, as race instructions were being given, Maria broke it to me that, after gutsy finishes at the Hyner 25k and Rothrock 30k earlier this year, she wanted to take a crack at her first Marathon distance run on her own. While I certainly understood and respected her decision, it came as a shock to me if for no other reason than that I was not mentally prepared to race. I’d run only once in the last 6 days, following a 32 mile training run (REPORT) the previous Saturday on the Pine Creek Rail Trail, and my head was not where it would normally be for a goal-race. My entire day had just changed.

Fellow Valley Running Club member, and Megatransect vet, Stephen Saylor was standing nearby and said he’d be happy to run with me for as long as he could keep up. The gun sounded, we chatted for a few hundred yards, and the next time I saw him he was sitting at a picnic table eating a piece of BBQ chicken. He’d rocked his way to a 33rd place finish a full 15 minutes ahead of me.

Most of the first mile of the course is downhill on the paved Little Pine Creek Road. Two hours from home, I managed to fall in with even more VRC members in the form of Tracy, Josh and Tabby. I brought them up to speed on my situation as the course ducked into a campground and finally went off road via a section of the notorious Mid-State Trail, a 310 mile path cutting through the heart of Pennsylvania.
Having had the audacity to blast past these folks in the first two miles, I spent the next twenty miles running scared from them. I’d never gone out this aggressively for a long trail race, so why now? Why this one? I really can’t say, other than that I’ve been racing more confidently this year than in the past. But where confidence often pays off in short events, it usually comes back to bite you in the ass on long mountain grinds.

The first 4 miles of the race are relatively easy. After leaving the road its mostly side hill running. Damp ground and an uneven surface made things somewhat slippery and awkward, but I fell in with a train of ten or so runners moving along at a decent clip through the cool morning hours. Many races in this region are happy to throw a mountain in your face within a mile of the start. For its first and last act of mercy, the Call of the Wilds, gives runners some time to warm their legs up before the first climb. But after the first climb the course is fuck'n relentless. 

The Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon has an advertised distance of 27.5 miles and a cumulative vertical gain of around 6,000ft, and as soon as you start the first climb of the day, Dam Run toward Ramsey Road (Miles 3.8-4.2) you are reminded that you are indeed in a mountain run.  Its a steep climb, one of the steepest of the day, but on fresh legs I enjoyed moving up from the valley floor into the fog still hanging over the mountain tops. Maria, who I thought of constantly through out the day, snapped a great picture of the sun trying to break through. Although the temperature did eventually warm up to the 70’s from the an overnight low near the upper 40’s, heat would never be an issue.

Miles 4.2 - 5.5 take runners across the mountain top and sees them into the first aid station at Ramsey Road. I cruised in, feeling strong, to a rock star's reception of cheers, but stayed only long enough to top off my bottles.

 Miles 5.5 - 9.2. The first descent of the day is less rocky then the others, and less steep than some, and as such the most “runable.” I got the distinct sensation of déjà vu here, and was reminded of the first down hill after ascending the escarpment to Hyner View (Hyner-vu?). I moved very well through this section, took some risks, and made some time. Later in the race, most descents were steeper and strewn with loose rocks, making them no relief from the brutality of the climbs.

After another climb and corresponding descent (Miles 9.2 - 10.5) it was on to aid station #2. Still feeling strong I topped off my bottles, refilled my pocket (Scott Jurek Endure), and downed a handful of M&M's. From here (Miles: 10.5 - 13.5) the course crosses a bridge, follows the flat Pine Creek Rail Trial for about a half mile, and then ducks back into the woods and immediately begins to climb, fist via a blue blazed trail and then the yellow marked Tiadaghton trail. By this point in the race I was starting to think how much climbing sucks.

According to the course description there was a stunning vista at the top. I didn't see it. One of the unfortunate aspects of trail racing is that we often spend far too much time looking at our feet, and into ourselves, to notice the beauty that drew us into the outdoors to begin with.

Typically you think of mile 13 as the midway point of a Marathon, where you see the light at the end of the tunnel and begin to mentally count down the miles to the finish. Not so with The Call of the Wilds. In The Wilds, its where things start getting weirder. I passed through the 25k point in about 3:20, faster than both of my 25k finishes at Hyner, thanks in no large part to my more aggressive start and the lack of congestion out on the course (135 finishers versus 1,200)

but after that aid-stations start appearing a mile or two further down the trail than advertised, climbs seem to go on forever, down hills offer less relief and you begin to wonder why in the hell you were out there to begin with. Oh, and don't forget rattlesnakes.

After descending into the valley the trail winds along the hillside parallel to the Pine Creek Trail before finally dropping down to the road toward Aid Station #3 at mile 17. Except the Aid Station isn’t really at mile 17, and does not materialize until nearly mile 19, and you have to climb again to reach it. The friendly, helpful atmosphere however, quickly made me forget my frustration with being out of water for the last half hour. I quickly reloaded my bottles, dumped several cups over my head, grabbed some snacks from the table and continued on. The next few hundred yards of the course were downhill on asphalt, which felt altogether unpleasant on tired feet in my Pearl Izumi Trail N 1's (REVIEW).

Soon leaving the asphalt, the course veers onto the Pine Creek Rail Trail before entering the woods again for the long steep, switchback climb of Huntley Mountain (Miles 17 - 20). I was under the impression that Central Pa didn't believe in switchbacks, so you know that if a trail has switchbacks on it must be steep.

This climb was the darkest part of the race for me. Looking back down the mountain I caught sight of Josh and Tabby for the first time in  hours. They were climbing well and eventually passed me before the top. I was weakening and figured I wouldn't see them again until the finish. To my surprise they were having some trouble going down hill. Our strengths and weaknesses seemed to cancel each other out, and we would yo-yo like this on the next couple of climbs and descents.

I passed Josh and Tabby on the rocky, mentally retarded descent of the Gleason Trail (Miles 20 - 22.7). At the bottom you pick up the Old Wagon Road toward Jersey Mills and Aid Station #4 at mile 22, which was more like mile 23.5. I had a good laugh at the aid station about "Fleming Miles," which are apparently longer than normal miles, while the great volunteers refilled my bottles. Hurting, but positive, I walked out of AS4 double fisting slices of watermelon.

A half mile later on the next ridiculous climb I met a runner walking back down the trail toward me. I asked him what was up, thinking that perhaps I’d missed a turn somewhere, but he said he was headed back to the aid station to drop from the race. “So close to the finish?” I asked, with more than 24 miles indicated on my Garmin Forerunner 110 (REVIEW). He insisted that there was two more hours of racing still ahead and that he had had enough.

The Turbert Trail climb is freak'n stupid (which is why we love mountain running). It reminds me of the final climb of The Green Monster 50k (RACE REPORT). You've essentially covered the advertised race distance, and instead of heading downhill to the finish line you find yourself heading up another hill. Everybody on this climb with me was having trouble. I played yo-yo with a young couple, and another solo runner. One of us would stop, the other would hike past, the other would stop, and so on. Josh and Tabby came up on me once again, and for the first time in any race I actually decided to sit down on one of the rocks jutting out from the trailside...
And then one of those strange transcendent things happened. Near the top of the hill I started running the incline in short bursts and discovered that it hurt less than walking. As we crested, up and over the hill, I came up behind Josh and Tabby and hung with them, chatting, for the run across the mountain top, and suddenly the run was fairly pleasant again (minus the extreme bodily fatigue). The surprise appearance of a water stop manned by a couple of older men was an added blessing, but then it was on to another steep descent.
They let me go again, and I picked my way gingerly down the long, steep descent . I was tired, but hardly enough to warrant hallucinations. Still, a white haired man in a purple shirt is a strange thing to find on such gnarly trail, as is a man pushing a mountain bike up a hill almost too difficult to traverse on foot. The man in the purple shirt was there to warn runners about the rattlesnake den up ahead. “The snakes are on the right past the sign, keep to the left of the trail,” he said. When I caught the young couple running ahead of me I had to ask them what the man had said. I’d been listening to him, but couldn’t quite process it in my current state.

As it turns out the snake den wasn’t even on the same mountain side as we were. Already beyond the 26.2 mark, we hit the bottom, crossed a bridge, hit the Mid-State Trail again and began yet another climb, up Panther Run, across its top, and right past a tangle of rattlesnakes that looked like something out of the Discovery Channel. 

Strictly speaking the Panther Run climb is the least of the climbs on the course. But with my Garmin Battery dead an hour ago, at least a marathon on my legs, hungry, tired, and sore, the climb could hardly be anything but demoralizing. And yet, the run across the top was pleasant, relatively soft trail with a few rocks on a bed of pine needles. The downhill, past the snakes, was jarring, but I’d read on the race website that the snake den was about a mile from the finish and was hoping that, unlike the projected locations of aid stations, this mile marker would hold true. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. At some point clocks, mile markers, and finish times become irrelevant.

Panther Run did eventually have a bottom, and from there it was just a matter of crossing some asphalt and a couple of hundred meters of grass, over the timing mat to the finish.

Time: 7:39:24
Place: 38 of  134 finishers (10th in age group)
Full Results: Here

According to those I spoke with (who had a longer GPS battery life), actual race distance was just over 29 miles, and according to my own Garmin, total elevation gain was more than 7,000ft at mile 25.5 when my battery finally gave out, with more climbs yet to come. Call of the Wilds was without a doubt the toughest race i've done yet, essentially a 50k on a weekend when I was expecting to run a marathon.

My quads seized up shortly after the finish and I laid on the ground for awhile waiting for them to release. After I got back in my feet I watched friends finish and then made for the pavilion for some conversation and much needed post race refreshment. I eventually found the energy to go change my clothes and begin waiting for Maria, who I became increasingly worried about as the hours passed by. The worry was needless. Maria is tough. She was always going to finish by crossing the line under her own power or else they would have to pull her kicking and screaming from the course after the cutoff. She made the cutoff with hours to spare.

After a 2:30 AM wake-up call we finally made it home to Bradford County Pa at 9:30PM, just in time to eat (again), and get up at 5:00AM Sunday morning for the Catharine Valley Half Marathon (RACE REPORT), capping off my 43 mile two-day race weekend.


- Beautiful, difficult course. Runners have come to expect nothing less from racing in this region of Pennsylvania, and The Call of the Wilds did not disappoint.

- Friendly, helpful race volunteers at the start/finish, all 4 aid stations, and two unexpected water stops that were truly life savers for those of us carrying only 20 or 30 ounces for each leg of the route. These are the people that make trail racing possible.

-Well marked course. Long orange flags everywhere leading the way. I feel kind of sorry for the folks charged with taking the flagging down this week. hehe

-The watermellon at AS4 tasted incredible.


- Would love to see more high water content fruit at the aid stations. The watermellon at AS4 was a mental and physical boost. I'd hope for watermellon, grapes, and oranges in lage quantities next year. Some of us find more solid foods hard to choke down and tougher on the stomach.

- The aid-stations were not located where advertised. With aid stations sometimes appearing a 1 to 2.5 miles further down the trail than expected it caused some issues with rationing hydration. Many of us like to travel light, and we plan to finish our water, or dump what is left over our heads to cool ourselves when we know we’re approaching aid. I ended up going dry a couple times, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Trail runners can go without a lot of things, but water isn’t one of them.

- The post race meal was a little lacking. The fact that the race had around 135 runners finishing in a range from 5 and a half hours to 13 hours (to say nothing of the 100 mile race also in progress) obviously made this aspect of the event difficult to plan. I finished two hours behind the winner in 38th and by that point the food had already passed its prime. Those finishing later had even slimmer pickings.

- The race was longer than advertised with far more elevation than advertised. I'm more than okay with the race not being 26.2. Its just a number, and trail runners expect courses to be long, though at some point things started to feel a little bit ridiculous. That said, for next year, I recommend changing the what the website says, hacking off a few pieces of the course, or changing the name to “Call of the Wilds 50k?” or “Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon+?” because lets face it, at over 29 miles, over terrain this nasty, the race is a 50k in everything but name.
The Verdict:

The Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon is a phenomenal, grueling, and mentally challenging race. Very well done in its first year, however not without flaws. With a little bit of tweaking, and given the quality of the people working behind the scenes, I fully expect this race to knock it out of the park in 2015 and beyond. Well done.


  1. Great report...a bunch of my friends had very similar things to say. I talked to the RD about what we need at aid stations and they were very receptive. On the 100 we had a station at mile 51 that was perfectly stocked...various fruit, grilled sandwiches, coffee, coke, and even ginger candy....but sadly there was extra slim pickings by Sunday afternoon when the last of us staggered in after 35 hours. Next year there will be more melon.

  2. First year event, there was always bound to be room for some slight tweaking to really dial things in. But still, a great experience.