Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pine Creek Challenge 100k (Race Report)

At first glance The Pine Creek Challenge 100k seems like a bad fit for me. Flat rail trail instead of mountainous single track, double the length of my longest race finish, and an attempt at 100k before completing my first 50 miler. But going back to last October when I notched my first 50k finish at the difficult Green Monster, I knew that when I took a crack at 50 miles in 2014 I didn’t want it to be a mountain race. I love single track, I love the mountains, but at the time the distance alone sounded so daunting that I immediately decided the miles were obstacle enough, and I would look for something flatter. 2014 arrived and I was slow to pull the trigger on registering for a 50 miler, events sold out, and I began to mull the possibility of 100k as a suitable option. The Pine Creek Challenge was very enticing to me for several reasons; less than seventy miles from home, put on by my friends at Tyoga Running Club, flat but scenically wound through the Pine Creek Gorge. The trail’s wide, fine crushed stone surface is dirt road-like, but closed to motorized traffic, giving it the ease of road runner but without all the traffic, mind numbing monotony, and bodily pounding.

I loaded the first half of my year with lots of short, fast, racing, but entering into early summer I was reasonably sure that I would take a crack at Pine Creek. I finally pulled the trigger in July and began to shift my training back toward longer runs and races. The brunt of my preparation came in the form of 32 miles on the Pine Creek Trail on August 9th, The Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon and Catharine Valley Half Marathon on back to back days the following weekend (Aug 16 - 17), and then 40 miles on the Pine Creek Trail one week later (Aug 23). On both Pine Creek training runs I was joined by fellow VRC runner Andrew Robinson who also planned to run the 100k, which we intended to run together.

I followed my block of heavy training with two taper weekends during which I planned to eat clean, hydrate, stretch and sleep plenty. Unfortunately this taper period coincided with the deterioration of my personal life. Nothing at all went as I had planned. Anxious (not about the race) and severely depressed I slept little and ate even less. I pretty much lived on caffeine, and with no appetite to speak of, unintentionally dropped about 10lbs.


Wake up call was at 5:00AM. From home it is about 65 miles to Straight Run Road outside of Wellsboro, Pa, and the starting line of the Pine Creek Challenge. 65 miles, just a few miles longer than the race itself. The distance seems so daunting when you track it with the odometer in a car. The idea of running 100k on asphalt seems unfathomable to me, and yet here we were about to embark on a 62 mile run.

Andrew picked me up at 6:00AM and we arrived with plenty of time to spare before the 9:00AM race start. The 100 mile race got underway at 6:00 with an out-and-back taking them further on up the trail before eventually joining the 100k runners on the south bound trail.


The beginning of a 62 mile run is somewhat anticlimactic; months of training and anticipation built to a fever pitch only to roll slowly out of a secluded back road parking lot, left onto a dirt road and three tenths of a mile later right onto a perfect ribbon of well maintained rail a ten minute per mile pace. Forget everything you know about your local 5k road races or big city marathons. Out here slow and steady is efficient, sustainable, fast.

September 6th. A small band of ultra running misfits unceremoniously rolled under the start/finish banner at 9:00AM. A few lucky ones would see the finish line again in light of day. Most would return in the dark. Some would not see it again until September 7th.

From our training runs, Andrew and I were familiar with the first 20 miles of the course (Straight Run to Blackwell). Everything after Blackwell, outward bound, would be new to us. But we had to get there first. We started conservatively, too conservatively maybe, though better safe than sorry. It was race day, but we tried to treat it as just another long run. Low stress, easy pace. With 62 miles the race would unfold in its own good time. Those who went out too hard would come back to us. If we went out too hard we would pay.

The first eleven mile, from Straight Run to Tiadaghton were uneventful. At various times we fell in with other runners for some typical race day conversation. What is your name? Where are you from? What is your racing history? I'm notoriously bad with names, but everybody was friendly, funny and helpful as I've come to expect from trail racing.

We were all smiles when we cruised into Tiadaghton , the mile 11 aid station which on this day was being manned by Amey, John, Eve, Jeff, and Chris, all members of our local running scene in Bradford County Pa, folks I’ve shared hundreds of miles with on the roads and trails over the past several years. It was a delight to see them, although we did not stay long. Their presence would become very important to Andrew and I several hours later when we returned through Tiadaghton at mile 51.

For some reason I cannot explain, things began to go sour for me after Tiadaghton. Maybe it was the shockwave created by ultra running legend Connie Gardner (already 50k into her 100 miler) blasting past us like we were standing still?

Tiadaghton, former site of a booming 19th century town during the logging era, is the most remote aid station on the course. From Tiadaghton its nearly 9 miles to Blackwell. Andrew attempted to engage me in our typical conversation: history, politics, you name it. I was so out of it that when prompted I couldn't come up with the year and name of the group responsible for the assassination that lead to the start of World War I. And nor could his jokes get a rise out of me. As we rolled into the Blackwell aid station at mile 20 I was seriously contemplating dropping. I asked myself "Do you think he would mind if I too his car key, hopped a ride back to the start line, got my stuff, and called for a ride home?"

Things didn't improve much for me after Blackwell either. The final 11 miles of the outward bound route, which we had never seen, had some very disheartening straight stretches, and for a short time the whole endevour seemed a bit too much like road running.

I'd been telling myself for weeks that if I could reach the 50k turn around point I'd be home free. Its probably a bit absurd to think that that 31 miles to go constitutes "home free," but I'd rationalized it that way in my head.

After Blackwell we passed through the beautiful little town of "Cedar Run," which was followed by the turn around point at "Slate Run."


We stayed at Slate Run long enough for me to pull my pack off and retrieve some Hammer Gels and another packet of Tailwind from the back. I’ve been using Hammer Gels for years and trust no other brand. Tailwind is a new addition to my nutritional arsenal which seems to be working well so far.
We’d passed the first place 100k runner as she headed back up the trail about 4 miles from Slate Run, putting her more than 8 miles ahead of us on the trail by this point. We had the chance to size up the rest of the top ten before hitting the aid station, and after turning around we got a chance to see who was behind us.

For most runners 20 miles is far as you train before attempting a marathon, and just a few short years ago the distance seemed like such an feat to me. So you know you’ve gone off the deep end when you start thinking to yourself “YES! Only 20 miles to go.“ I was eager to get back to Blackwell. Not only was the Blackwell aid station about twenty miles from the finish, but it also meant reentering the section of the Pine Creek Trail I was most familiar with. The section between Blackwell and Darling Run is also the most senic, in my opinion. The sides of the canon tower above you on either side, with the Pine Creek babbling near by.

The rain promised by the forecast had missed us earlier, but we finally got soaked between Blackwell and Tiadaghton. Could have used the cool down at midday, but the late afternoon into early evening would have to do. Even with the cool down, the roughest patch of the race, for me, were in this section. My him began to hurt, along with my right foot, with occasionally cramping in my opposite leg. Out beyond 40 miles my body was in completely new territory.

I handled the cramping with some S-Caps, but even a couple doses of Excedrin would not alleviate the issue with my hip.

After the long stretch out of Blackwell I couldn't have been more happy to see the lights of the Tiadaghton aid station come into view. After 51 miles and just over 10 hours on the trail we were greeted by the cheers of friends. We lingered at Tiadaghton a little longer than at our other stops for the day. I refilled on Tailwind, knocked down two ham sandwiches and handfuls of chips. With 11 miles to go I felt the pull of the finish, and quite frankly felt better than I had all day. We hauled ass out of Tiadaghton and made good time toward the Turkey Path.

About two miles outside of Tiadaghton we had our best wildlife encounter yet on the Pine Creek, a mother bear and two young cubs crossing the path ahead of us, three black shadows at dusk. I've seen 6 bears from just two encounters during 10 years of trail running. Both incidents featured a mother and two cubs. One of these days I'm going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but not this time. The three bears crossed the trail heading away from the creek and up the mountain side allowing us to pass through.

Darkness fell. We ran by Andrew's light for a few minutes but soon realized that even with the sun down there was more than enough light to see the trail by. Every once in awhile one of us would look back for other lights coming up the trail, but we were alone. We'd seen nobody buy volunteers since Blackwell, which made the whole thing suddenly feel like a training run.

I started to feel stronger in the late miles of the race, as Andrew who had been feeling better earlier, began to enter a darker patch of his own. The great thing about having run as a pair is that when one of us was down the other was there to pick him up. Though a combination of running and power hiking we eventually rolled into the Darling Run aid statation, our final stop before the finish. I downed some coke, but needed nothing else before we moved on.

Just a few miles more. The trail became more "civilized," with numerous road crossings, the sound of cars cruising by on Route 6, and lights from various homes along the way. At last a blinking light on a gate marked our arrival back at Straight Run Road. We hung a left and ran it in hard. 62 miles in 12 hours and 35 minutes. Good enough for 10th and 11th place.


The finish line of a 100k/100 mile run is a lonely place. With runners stretched out over 50 miles of trail, and some not expected to reach journey's end until noon the next day, we were greeted only by a few race volunteers (to whom were grateful). We pulled our packs off, got something to eat, and hung around to watch the 100 mile champion cross the finish in an incredible 16:12, a new course record. The 65 mile drive home followed shortly after.

62 miles is a long way. It hurts. But it hurts more after you've stopped. I got no sleep at all Saturday night, and ended up being awake for more than 35 hours before my feet and hip calmed down enough to allow me to take a nap. I waited until Wednesday to run again, but as my hip was still bothering me I did only 3 miles and did not run again until Saturday when I completed the Camptown Races 10k (RACE REPORT).

7 Days for me to complete a race report? That is what it has taken. Finishing the race was a major ego boost, but then there is the inevitable let down when you realize your big goal for the year has been accomplished. Coupled with some other issues going on in my life right now, it was rather depressing really. Contributing to the difficulty of sitting down for any length of time to write was the fact that much of the experience feels “unreal” in retrospect, and lays under a haze of, if I may use the cliché, relentless forward motion. After a certain point the pain no longer matters, it truly does become a mental thing, and for me at least, the brain sort of goes on auto pilot. Taking a crack at 100 miles next September should be a real head trip… 


  1. Thanks for taking the time to put your experience into words. Congrats on your race. You had a solid run and should be proud. Good luck on your 100 prep!