Sunday, September 11, 2016

RACE REPORT: Pine Creek Challenge 100k (2016)

- New Balance Accelerate Short Sleeve Tee
- New Balance Accelerate 5 inch shorts
- Darn Tuff Vermont Socks
- S-Caps

Aid is more than sufficient on the course to travel light and fast. This year I left
the backpack home.


The news media, literature, music and books love to talk about 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,' They tout running as an 'individual' sport, a solitary venture wherein you succeed or fail completely on your own. In some sectors of the running world there may be some truth to this. But in the small corner of the running community that we (those likely to be reading this) occupy, success seldom occurs without the tireless support of countless others.

I've written around 40 of these race-reports. Most of the time the words come easy. A race-report for a 5k is a breeze - slap a few pictures of yourself up and you're good to go. For a technical mountain trail race - 10k  to 25k for instance the course itself becomes a second character with boulder fields and stunning vistas fighting for some of the spotlight. But where things get tricky (for me) is the ultra marathon race report. 50k? Tough but doable, i can usually spit one of those out within a day or two of the race. But 100k? It took me an entire week to wrap my head around the 2014 Pine Creek Challenge 100k (race report), and as I finally begin to pull together the text you are currently reading four days have passed since I crossed the finish line at the 2016 Pine Creek Challenge 100k.

So why the trouble with 100k race-reports? The issue I've found myself grappling with the last few days is that the 'race-report' is, by its very nature a self-centered format. Read any of mine. They're all about my training, my ups and downs during the race, how I failed or succeed, and how I felt after. The entire concept is at odds with what I experienced for 15 hours out on the trail this Saturday.

So this time I'd like to do things a little differently by focusing on the personal encounters of my day on the trail.....

One Saturday, less than a month before the race I spent a completely random (and totally overkill) 28 miles on the Pine Creek Rail Trail with my friend Andrew. Two years earlier we had trained for the race together, raced it together and finished together (12 hours, 28 mins).

At the end of the run I cruised up 'The Turkey Path' feeling better than I had any right to at my current level of training. I already had plans to spend the weekend volunteering with my friends at the Tiadaghton Aid Station, but a nagging question had begun to take root in my mind. 'Could I run the race instead?'

Tiadaghton Aid Station Crew

When I 'pulled the trigger' and registered about two weeks before the race I immediately began to plan my race strategy around these people. On this year's modified 100k course, Tiadaghton represents the 33.6 and 52.4 mile mark. I realize how ludicrous it sounds - but I knew that if I could run 33.6 miles I could  run the full 62 because if I could reach Tiadaghton my friends would not let me stop there, and if I could leave them at Tiadaghton at mile 33.6, shame and the knowledge that my pacer Jeff Russell would be waiting to drag me across the final miles would be enough impetus to bring me back to them from the turnaround at Blackwell.

Months of training (if you bothered to train, I kind of skipped that part), an anxious drive (if you get nervous), and hour wait for the start.... culminating in an almost laughable anti-climax. There is nothing quite like heeding a race director's order to 'go,' only to trot out of race headquarters at around 10 minutes per mile. If all of your experience is in shorter races, or you've never witnessed the start of a long ultra you might think 'what the fuck is this?' But in a few hours that 10 minute pace will start to feel all too fast, the miles and the hurt gradually piling up. If you are the runner there is nothing left to do but enjoy the scenery, and enjoy the companionship until the inevitable suffer fest begins.....

This year's 100k course begins with a double-out and back between Asaph and Wellsboro Junction, seeing runners through their first 23 miles. What I mostly remember is dozens of red newts on the trail surface in the early morning dew. Then there was Pine Creek Rail Trail Guidebook author Linda Stager on a bridge snapping pictures in her favorite section of the trail. Also the funny moment at the aid station on my second trip out to Wellsboro junction when I took a dill pickle from a jar, thinking it part of the aid station, only to find it belonged to a runner being crewed by his wife. Upon our return to Asaph she offered me another, and we had a good chuckle.

The double out-and-back, though through beautiful terrain, was never the less a bit monotonous. The monotony was broken up, somewhat, by the fact that for the first hour or so every single 100k and 100 miler runner was in this section of the course. But I was glad to reach Asaph for the second time and begin heading south toward the canyon.

I ran out of Asaph south toward Marsh Creek and Darling Run with nobody in sight directly ahead of me. A trio of ladies who I had overtaken at the last aid station, soon caught me just North of Darling Run (mile 25.8). I overtook them again in the aid station. We played yo-yo for a while between Darling Run and Turkey Path. I even stopped to take a picture for them. But I would not see them again after that.

Its an 8 mile gap from Darling Run to Tiadaghton. Though the first marathon of the day I was able to maintain a pace somewhere just over 5 miles an hour, but I began to weaken near the end of the run into Tiadaghton, and by the time my friends where cheered my arrival I was ready to flop myself down in a chair and reconsider my decision to run 100k with fewer than 600 training miles in the past 9 months.

34 miles in 6 and a half hours on limited training. It was nothing to be ashamed of as far as I was concerned, and if nothing else a damn good training run ahead of The Green Monster Trail Challenge 50k on October 9th. I was tempted to stay, and hangout with my VRC compatriots.

The good news was that, without a finish-time goal in mind, I didn't need to decide just then. Where I had breezed through all of the earlier aid stations, it was finally time to sit down, pull of my shoes, and replenish.

In a few short years the Tiadaghton aid station has achieved near legend status on the Pine Creek Challenge course. Every year it gets a little bigger, a little better, and the praise is certainly warranted. Eve, Mary, Jeff, Alan, Chris and their families - in addition to being a well oiled aid station machine they're also my friends and frequent running companions.

Ice cold fresh fruit slushies, Coca Cola over ice, hot ham and cheese.... or purposely overate during my extended stay, and as my blood sugar spiked I became more positive ....

Twenty minutes after entering Tiadaghton I walked out of it, headed south 9 more miles to Blackwell. My companions for the next few miles were a couple of guys named John and Pete, which I only remember because I told them I was bad with names and sure to forget. We discussed all things 'Pa Trail Races' and yo-yoed  down to the turn around.

I was greeted at Blackwell by a small group of spectators in lawn chairs. Somewhat cruelly, the course passes the aid station, continuing for about a half mile before the turnaround. I passed John, Pete, and two other runners coming back toward me (so really just ahead of me) on my way out to the turnaround. All four were still hanging out in the aid station when I arrived.

After sitting down for a few minutes and refueling on ice cold coke, ginger ale and potato chips, the long slog back up to Tiadaghton began. The four runners I just mentioned were the only 100k runners (headed in my direction) I would see for the rest of the race, and after a mile or two they pulled (permanently) ahead of me.

Does that sound lonely to you? Not in the least. There were still plenty of 100k runners, and the first of the 100 mile contingent out on the course and heading toward me.

On one hand an out and back course can be a bit tedious, on the other -it keeps you in constant contact with the rest of the field. One of the main appeals of the ultra running community is the camaraderie between runners. Its easy enough to say 'runners are supportive,' but to see it, and really feel it, you have to be there, run the long miles, and feel the hurt. Its one runner offering another s-caps, gels, or the last of their water, when they see them cramped up on the side of the trail. Its still having the good will to smile and say 'good job' to every single runner you pass even after 50 miles or more. Its the aid station volunteer who throws on a pair of wet shorts from his race earlier in the day and runs off into the night with a runner who needs a pacer. Its somebody offering you their spare batteries or flashlight when the sun goes down. Its the race leader, in their own world of hurt, telling you 'good job.' This is the stuff that got me across the long gap from Blackwell back to Tiadaghton.

After 50 miles and 12 and a half hours (my 100k finish time in 2014) I ran back into Tiadaghton, lifted up by cheers and a high-five from volunteer Chris VanDruff - the mirror image of when I greeted Chris the same way during his race a year earlier.

At Tiadaghton I sat again, pulled my shoes off, popped a couple excedrin and refueled for the final 12 mile push back up to Asaph.

My Pacer: Jeff Russell
When I hit the trail again a few minutes later it was with Jeff Russell. I've never used a pacer in a race before, but I was very happy to have Jeff with me for the final stretch. Jeff and I have run/hiked together dozens of times in the last year (including Darling Run to the top of Turkey Path and back a couple weeks earlier).

If you had to sum up our runs together it would be - epic conversation meets attention to minute details of nature. This night was no exception.

The sun dropped below the horizon as we hoofed it out of the aid station. It was soon dark, but with a great big moon at our backs casting long straight shadows from a mostly clear sky above Pine Creek, the light was sufficient to forgo our headlamps.

Its not often that you get to see the moon and stars in the sky, but also lightening. Occasional, distant flashes punctuated the night as we broke the miles up in sections. Turkey Path, the outhouses just past turkey path, the cold mountain spring dripping from a pipe out of the hillside, the blinding light and little cheering girls that suddenly cut through the dark as we hit reached Darling Run - 3.4 miles to go.

We didn't stay long at Darling Run - just long enough to chat with Jean and Travis before moving on.

By daylight, the miles between Darling Run and Asaph - with their numerous road crossings and houses - are my least favorite of the trail. By night, and moonlight, they take on a kind of beauty. We noted the long dark silhouette of the mountains on our left, the little lights of small hamlets, the constant humming and chirping of summer insects that will soon go silent for the winter.

When I ran the race in 2014 I found a 'second' wind in the final miles and felt that could have gone on and on after the finish. Not this year. This year my feet, ankles, knees, and hips ached. Every once in awhile I would stop, resting my palms on my knees to momentarily relieve the pressure before moving on.

At last, after 15 hours and 22 minutes, the day ended much as it had started - a quiet finish on a quiet little back road. The outside world oblivious to what we had done...


The problem (and blessing) of running long is that you have to stop. As bad as you may feel during the low points of a run, it always hurts worse once you've been off of your feet for a couple of hours, and have had the time to cool down. When Jeff and I reached the finished line we took a few minutes to chat with the race director, picked up my prize (a homemade clay mug), and then immediately hopped in my truck and headed back down the trail to the Tiadaghton aid station to hang out with our friends and watch the 100 mile badasses come through for the rest of the night.

Somebody once told me 'everybody should spend a night at an aid station during a 100 miler' and having done it a couple times now i wholeheartedly agree. Although I had just run my second 100k, I was still in awe of every single 100 miler - from the front of the pack to the very back at 8:00 the next morning. The determination is mind blowing.

The guy in the sombrero and Vibrams. The Marine who carried a full sized American flag on a poll the entire race. The young woman who ran in sandals. The man in his 70's or 80's power walking  as long and hard as he could against the cutoffs. You won't see see those folks on ESPN. Their stories won't even be told in their local newspapers. But those of us who were there know what they did, and it inspires us.

My own story is just a small part of the 2016 Pine Creek Challenge.

See you September 9th and 10th 2017......



  1. Well done report. Brian. Lots of stuff goes through the head on the long, dark night runs.

  2. Great job buddy! Excellent writing. Thank you for letting me enjoy the final miles with you. It was a great experience. Looking forward to next year!