I came to the Tiadaghton State Forest to pace my good friend, Steve, at the inaugural running of the Eastern States 100, a 100 mile run through the wilds of some of the most remote country in Pennsylvania. I came away with a new found respect for the hills, for the trails of Pennsylvania, and for my good friend, Steve.
We spent six or seven hours in the car on Friday driving to the little town of Waterville, PA, an unincorporated community located in Cummings Township. Cummings, in the 2000 census, had a total population of 355. This is a small place spread out over 70 square miles, fifty acres of which belong to the private Happy Acres Resort, host of the inaugural run. As we drove into the community, there were signs everywhere welcoming runners. I have been to a lot of races, but never have I seen such community support for a 100 mile race that had less than 200 people sign up, and only 161 starters. I talked to a girl who worked at the Happy Acres restaurant, and she told me that in this small town, an event like this is a big deal. The resort had even printed special T-shirts with the race name on it, and the name of the resort, that they were selling as race memorabilia. It was an amazing show of support for what is still, in essence, a small and crazy percentage of the running community—ultrarunners.
After checking in at the start, we ate a rather good pasta meal at the restaurant. We were allowed one free beer, a local brew neither of us had ever heard of called Straub, a light American lager light on taste. But it was free! Then it was back to the yurt for another couple of beers and conversation that lasted later than either of us really wanted. By the time I turned off the light and fell asleep it was past 10pm. Steve stayed awake all night, tossing and turning, too excited to really sleep much at all. I heard him moving around the yurt around 2am, three hours before the start, organizing his drop bags, making coffee, generally getting ready. I finally opened my eyes an hour later, had some coffee, got dressed, and together we went to the start about one mile away. The foggy air glittered in bobbing headlamps and glowing car headlights. Steve received his bib, and got weighed in. The only other race I know where they do mandatory weigh-ins is Western States. I thought of it as a good sign of a race that was taking the health of its participants seriously. Also, as the name suggests, this race wants to be the east coast version of the WS100.
At five AM, the gun sounded and they were off, a string of 161 headlamps streaming down the road toward the campground. I got in my car and followed them for the long slow downhill mile that started the race. This would be the easy part of the run, for after about three miles of rolling ups and downs they would hit their first climb around mile four, what is touted as the hardest climb of the course, about 1000 feet straight up in one mile. Steve reported later that he went from following the runner in front of him to looking at their feet in an instant. The first forty miles got tougher from there.
I picked up Steve at mile 40, Hyner Run State Park. I got a ride out there from a couple other runners who were pacing a racer. One of them, Chad, had that morning completed the Call of the Wilds Marathon that was, by his account, the hardest trail marathon he’d ever run. The marathon followed the hard first 17 miles of the 100 mile course, then turned sharply to climb Huntley Mountain. Chad told me the last ten miles of the course was by far harder than the first seventeen. He finished fourth, though he had hoped to take home the double-edged axe that was the winner’s prize.
As I waited at the Hyner aid station, I watched other runners emerge from the mountains. By and large they were a haggard bunch, not looking like the relatively fresh faces one would expect to see less than halfway through a 100 mile run. These were beaten down men and women, bedraggled, dirt smeared, shuffling uncomfortably like they were coming into the 80 mile aid station. One runner, who seemed to have entered the aid station area without even a bottle in hand, was pulled from the race by medical personnel. He had lost too much weight, I guessed, and after a test of his urine they determined he could not continue. Another runner, who did not want to be weighed, argued that the runner waiver did not specify that runners must weigh in to continue their run, and despite medical concerns he continued on his way.
When Steve arrived it was about a quarter past five, more than 12 hours since the race began. He was slow but moving, and despite looking rather tired he had a big smile on his face. As he changed his socks he told me those first forty were the toughest he’d ever done. We filled water bottles and grabbed poles. I also grabbed some food. One thing I learned well after MMT was to take food from the aid stations, to always have something to eat with me, no matter what it is. Because inevitably along the trail I’ll get calorie depleted, and my goal for pacing was to stay awake and alert and never let myself reach a dark patch. I was there to support him, and I needed to make sure I stayed fed and hydrated.
Steve lost about a pound and was concerned about his hydration, so he sucked down most of his water while at Hyner. We headed up the trail towards what I was expecting to be a terrible climb, but the hill to me wasn’t so bad. For Steve, who had been pummeled already, each ascent and descent was a struggle. The course was a bit wet, which made some of the steeper hills more difficult to navigate, especially the descents. Many of these trails had no switchbacks—they were simply a notch cut through the underbrush that shot straight up or straight down a hill. Even on fresh legs I had a hard time with some of the climbs. In addition to the mud, there were rocks littered throughout parts of the trails. Not big, unmoving boulders, but small little rocks, the size of a fist or a head, that wobbled and shifted when you stepped on them. They jutted out of the ground like the jagged pieces of some enormous broken sheet of glass. Each step meant putting your foot on a rock that wobbled, or jamming it between the rocks where one risked twisting an ankle or turning a knee.
There were magnificent views, though, along the Hyner ridge where we passed through fields of ferns that looked like something out of the Jurassic era. At one point during the night as we were coming down to one of the many streams we had to cross I looked up and saw a strange light through the trees. I pointed it out to Steve who didn’t know what it was, either. I stopped to focus my attention on it and saw it more clearly, the bright orange-yellow glow of a crescent moon above a long ridge behind the trees. I turned off my light while Steve continued down the trail and stood in the darkness. My eyes grew accustomed to it and soon I could see the leaves on the ground underfoot, and the line of the ridge illuminated by the shining moon. In the darkness I remembered why I love to run trails, and why the nights are so much different than the days. The world shrinks at night, becomes nothing but the small circle of light created by a headlamp or a handheld light. I see nothing but the ground in front of me, watching each footfall to make sure I don’t slip or turn an ankle. When I am the runner, I don’t allow myself moments like these, to stop and turn off my light and just enjoy the darkness and allow for a moment my nighttime world to expand again. I leaned against a tree and felt the cool evening air and stared up at the moon and the ridge. This moment, standing in the complete darkness, was why I run, why I ultrarun. There are few other times or places when this can happen. Knowing how far I have come, and how much farther I have to go, and the only way to get from here to there is by the power of my own two feet.
I clicked my light back on and jogged down the trail to catch up with Steve. He was moving well, and was having a few ups and downs. From my MMT experience, and thanks to my friend R, I knew that what he needed was more calories. At the aid stations the only thing he could keep down was soup, so I made sure he got some soup every chance we got. And I grabbed more food: M&Ms and raisins, nuts, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I had so much food in my pack that I probably could have fueled a 20 mile run. As it was, Steve’s stomach wouldn’t let him get much of anything down. He took a Zofran, which helped immeasurably to control his nausea.
At one aid station we came to another runner who was on the verge of calling his race quits. He was sitting down and complained that he was unable to get any food in him. The runner was Korean, as I could tell by the Korean flag he wore as a bandana. He told Steve that this was his first 100 miler in 7 years, that he had stopped running them because of stomach issues, and that he thought he would never be able to run one again. Steve sat next to him and told him about the wonder drug Zofran, and gave him one of the pills he had with him. “This will control your nausea so you can eat,” he told him, while the aid station volunteer opened the little pill. I told Steve we had to go, and off we went. This was about mile 66.
The next section was a steep downhill along mud covered rocks that wobbled and moved with every step. Steve took his time, as did I, neither of us wanting a fall to derail our finishing plans. We had been moving for forty minutes or so when a light appeared on the trail behind us. “Is that Steve?” a runner asked. “Yep,” I said. It was the Korean runner, moving fast. The Zofran had worked, and he was back on track. “We still have an hour,” he told us as he passed, and within minutes he was no longer in sight, gone into the pre-morning darkness.
Steve and I continued to struggled down the Algerine Trail where eventually we crossed Leetonia Road and began a climb up what the course description calls “Quite possibly the longest and steepest and rockiest you have seen so far.” The rocks were unrelenting here, the trail cantered to a thirty degree slope towards a fast moving creek. The mud covered rocks gave no place for us to plant our feet. Each step was a test in balance and coordination as the rocks beneath us wobbled on muddy earth. Steve—exhausted, 68 plus miles into the race, nearly two days without sleep, sore and hungry—was unsure of his footing. He landed each step and then waited to see if his foot would stay where he placed it. Sometimes it did, and other times it did not. Grabbing a tree to help pull himself up and over a short, steep rise in the trail, his foot slipped out from under him in the mud and he quickly took hold of the tree with both hands. He fell backwards, his feet slid over the edge of the trail, and like Gene Kelly he swung out and around that tree, a full 180 degree swing, his feet now dangling over the steep cliff that dropped twenty feet to the creek below. I was too tired to react much, but Steve’s survival instincts are spot on. He held on there until he managed to get his feet back on the ground, then I helped pull him back onto the trail. “That was epic, Steve,” I said, as we both looked down the at the creek that could have seriously injured him had he not grabbed that tree. That moment in my mind will forever be considered Steve’s Gene Kelly moment.
It took us nearly 90 minutes to make the climb up the Long Branch Trail, and when we were finally out of the hollow, finally away from the mud covered rocks and away from the steep climbs, I looked at my phone. It was 6:30am. The race was over in little more than 10 hours, and we still had thirty miles to go. Thirty of the most difficult miles in the course, most likely, for even if they were flat and rolling the entire way (which was unlikely), Steve was struggling and tired. I didn’t want to say anything yet; I figured I’d wait until we got to the aid station. But then the topic came up somehow, and I brought up the fact that we would be pushing it to make it to the finish before the 36 hour cutoff. “I don’t know about the cutoff at the next aid station,” I said. “But I think we might need to look carefully at the fact that finishing this race before the cutoff will be hard.”
Steve was tired, and hungry, though he didn’t want to admit to that. He had eaten very little over the last 12 hours, and caloric deficit can wreak havoc on any endurance run. The course, too, was simply hard. Steve was ready to call it. Half-a-mile before the Long Branch Aid Station, we came upon a man in jeans and a bright green jacket. “Almost there,” he said. Steve responded, “I’m done.” This man, who turned out to be a runner who had dropped earlier in the race and was up here looking for his wife who had continued, patted Steve on the shoulder. “Your an hour ahead of the cutoff. Dig deep,” he said. “You can do it.” And then he was gone behind us, still searching for his wife.
Steve was having none of that talk. He was done, he said, and no one was going to convince him otherwise. If they tried, he would give them an earful. I laughed, because aside from this one man no one was suggesting he continue. I told him we should get to the aid station and sit down and rest. No one would tell him he had to go on, I said. He channeled all his frustration from the past 25 hours, funneled into a tirade against nameless and fictional characters who would convince him to go on, who would tell him he had to dig deep and continue. I laughed a lot, and got him to laugh some, too. Then ahead we found the aid station, and he walked up to the first person he saw and said, “I’m done.” The volunteer, a tired looking young man who had himself probably been awake all night, wrote Steve’s number on a piece of paper and said, “Okay.”
And that was it.
As it turns out we arrived at the aid station with five minutes to spare before the cutoff. There was another runner there who left shortly after we arrived, and for a while we were the only ones there. Five minutes after we sat down around the fire, they announced that the station was closed. No more runners would be allowed to pass. Of the 161 who had started, only 78 made it beyond this point. Steve may not have finished the race, but he made it farther than more than half the runners who toed the start. The runner who was there when we arrived, we found out later, made it to the next aid station in 80 minutes, the fastest time of any runner that day for that section of the course.
I congratulated Steve on a race well run. Under good weather conditions, this course was the toughest 100 miler I’ve ever seen, next to Hard Rock perhaps. And the only thing that might make Hard Rock harder is the fact that it takes place at elevation, with multiple climbs at more than 13,000 feet. The winner of the race finished in 21-1/2 hours, a slow time for the winner of any 100 mile run. I met a guy at the finish area who completed it in 22 hours, and said he was in terrible pain only because he was simply not used to being on his feet for that long. Even the guys who win these things had a hard time at this one.
Steve persevered. Even if we had continued past 72, we would not have met the cutoff at mile 78 and his race would have ended there. As it was, Steve accomplished an amazing feat, as did all the runners who toed the line at the start, and the 72 runners who wound up finishing.