Sunday, October 18, 2015

The week after

It's been a week and a few hours since I finished the Oil Creek 100 miler.  I haven't run much more than a few feet here or there, just to test out the legs, but I feel pretty good.  I've done several hikes and walks, and my body felt pretty good overall. 

The chafing issues healed pretty much within three days.  My second toe on each foot are pretty messed up.  I had a really big blister under each nail, and the toes feel a little... odd now that the blisters have been popped and healed up.  My quads are tired, but not sore.  My knees feel a little sore on downhills while hiking.  My legs are pretty tired on uphills.  Mentally, I'm tired, but good.

Will I do this again?  I think it's too early to answer this question.  I feel... disappointed in myself for cutting it so close, for worrying the people around me.  I thought I was in pretty good shape going into this, but training for running 100 miles is difficult, especially with a small child, a job, and family obligations.  I did my best for the time I had, but I think I could've done better.  Some things, like unexpected back pain, the chafing, were things that I had to deal with, but without those issues, maybe I could've moved faster for longer.

So I'll sign up for "shorter" races for next summer.  I'll think about what I want to do, and maybe try to get a little more "fit" overall.  I have the endurance, I just think I can work on my overall body fitness, if I can make the time and effort.

So far on my race list for next year is Hyner View 25k, maybe Glacier Ridge 50k, maybe the Call of the Wilds marathon to see if I can do it a bit faster, and Tussey Mountainback 50 miler has always been on my list.

We'll see what time and health brings to me this year.  I can't say I'm too disappointed with myself.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

100 miles with two minutes to spare

When you bite off more than you can chew, the polite thing isn't to spit it out, it's to do whatever you can do swallow.  And let me tell you, I choked down a bite about 38 miles too big for me to even fit in my mouth. 

The 2015 Oil Creek Trail runs.  I knew I was running 100 miles this year.  Nothing was going to stop me.  See, I had this (not so) little surgery back in January, and I was determined, from that hospital bed that I would recover and run 100 miles on my favorite trail in October.  On October 10th and 11th of 2015, to be exact.

So back in March, mostly healed up, I signed up for my "home" 100 miler.  And I trained.  I ran some races.  Some pretty challenging races, and I ran on the trails almost every weekend that I didn't have races.  I biked, I hiked and roller bladed when I wasn't running.  And I felt good.  

So last Friday, October 9th, I had all my bags packed, my lists made. I went out and marked a section of the race that I had volunteered to mark, and went to the family reunion that is the normal Oil Creek pre-race dinner.  It was a great time, but I escaped early so I could go home and sleep.

Drop bags ready!

Check list checked!

Woke up at 3am Saturday, and after a brief panic over some car trouble and some car juggling, I was on my way to the race.  I was a little stressed when I got there that I wouldn't have enough time, but I had time to use the bathroom, get my chip, check in with my crew and eventual pacers, Roger and Kris N. and calm down a little before the start.

Myself, Dave and Paula (Dave's wife) at the start line. (Kim is grinning at us from the left)  It wasn't too cold at 4:58am, and I knew I would warm up quickly (Photo by Roger N.)

So for those unfamiliar with the Oil Creek Trail races, the runner starts at a middle school, runs about 1.5 miles down a paved bike trail before reaching a trail head, and continuing on mostly single track through Oil Creek State Park.  For the 50k race, you do one loop as such.  For the 100k, two loops.  And us lucky and crazy 100 milers do the same thing three times, plus an extra little 7 mile loop that is about 5 mile of the trail. A runner of the 100 miler has 32 hours to finish.(Remember this for future reference.)

Now this is my home trail.  Most of the time I love it.  Some days, we have little fights, and I fall down or am stuck in my own head and it takes a toll on me.  But this summer was like the honeymoon with the Oil Creek trail.  We had nothing but good days!  We had gotten close!  I knew this trail so well.  I knew where to walk, I knew where to run, I knew where to do a nice lope and let gravity do it's thing.  It had been great!  So I set out to tramp along my old friend for as long as it would take us to get this 100 miles done.

And I took some real (people) friends with me too.  My friend Dave had signed up to stick the run out with me.  He was crazy, and had signed up only two weeks before hand, but we vowed not to hold each other to one another's pace if we weren't feeling so good anymore.

So we ran.  We ran easy, but not too easy.  And not wanting to bog this post with 100 miles of stuff, I'll give some of the highlights.

First of all, it was an exceptionally beautiful day, both in temperatures and scenery.  The leaves were amazing, and the air was cool, but not frigid.  Perfect running weather.

Heather B. on gorgeous trails!

Dave and I chattered about pace, about friends, about life, teased each other, made sure we were both eating/drinking enough.  We didn't linger too long in the first Aid station. I said hi to all my trail family working there, but I didn't eat much - I drank some coke, and had a peanut butter sandwich, filled my bottles, and we kept going.

We chased and were chased by friends most of the first loop.  Rob and Pat were leading, and being close to them worried me that we were going too fast, but I felt good, but not like I was pushing hard and I don't like second guessing myself when it comes to running.  I just end up thinking myself into spirals. A friend of mine, Bill, was right behind us, and we gave each other a quick hug of encouragement, and we were back out of the Aid Station.

Dave admiring the scenery.

Dave and I took turns leading, and we walked all hills, and did an easy gait going downhill.  I had a slight catch in my left ankle and a little bit of chafing issue, but I told myself I would fix those at the second Aid Station, and it would be fine.

Aid Station 2 check point!

Again greeted by the friendly faces of Aid Station 2, I had my bottles filled, I addressed my chafing, took a little ibuprofen to try to figure out my ankle, ate another pb sandwich, had a little coffee, and we took off pretty quickly again. Dave asked if our crew had brought him a egg mcmuffin, and was a little sad that they hadn't.  

The first loop pretty much continued like that.  We ran comfortably, we chatted, we ran with other runners sometimes, and I know I'm forgetting a lot, but I think you probably kill brain cells when you run that long and don't sleep.

We came to Aid Station 3, where I once again tried to address severe chafing on my thighs with some vaseline.  I knew at this point, it was going to be necessary to push through the discomfort until we at least got back to the Aid Station at the middle school, where I could change. I  had worn the capri running pants before, but not for anything over 12 miles.  A very stupid mistake on my part, mostly because I should have known better.

Wait up, I just want to take a quick picture!  You know, for my blog!

So I sucked up the pain, hoped my ankle would feel better when I changed shoes at the school, and kept eating gels, and drinking plenty of water.  We were coming down the last section of trail before we did the Drake Well loop and the bike trail, when I took a pretty good fall on my knees and elbows.  I was back up quickly, and wasn't hurt, so we kept going.  There was a scrape on my elbow, and I felt a bit bruised, but nothing for it but to keep going!

Dave and I coming in from finish the first loop!  Only 68 more miles to go!

I came into the Aid Station and grabbed my shoes and clothes.  I asked my crew to get me some potatoes and a grilled cheese, and felt a little queasy about food.  Hungry, but it didn't sound very appealing.  I ran to the bathroom and changed my pants, made sure I had my chip and bib number still on, addressed my chafing to the best of my ability, then went back out to my crew.  My husband, Jason, and my son were there.  My dad was there too!  It was a speedy reunion, as I ate some grilled cheese, drank some Dr. Pepper and Coke, and then Dave and I were out.  We knew we didn't want to linger too long, and I just wanted to make sure I was eating and getting some caffeine.  I picked up my hiking poles to save my legs on the ups and downs.  After the second loop, I would be picking up my friend Roger to pace me.

The second loop went as well as the first.  The chafing had become tolerable.  I forgot about my ankle, and my feet felt refreshed after a shoe change.  We were still running quite a bit.  

We hadn't seen too much wildlife through the day.  A turkey, a lot of chipmunks, I remember thinking how quiet the woods were.  About a mile and a half from Aid Station 1, something bounced, like a bouncy ball, across the trail in front of me.  I have never seen a mouse or chipmunk jump like that.  It looked like a fuzzy ball, and I have no idea what it was.  It was pretty cool though!

When we got to Aid Station 1 again, no food sounded good.  I was still eating gels like clockwork, because I knew I needed calories, but my mouth felt coated and gross.  I drank ginger ale, I had a couple of pierogis, and got out of there.  We were still ahead of my rough pace plan, but I knew night would be slower.

View from the top of the Wolfkiel switchbacks, right after Aid Station 1.

We were still running quite a bit, but we had gotten quieter.  I took a superman dive and landed right on my knees and stomach.  I got up pretty quick, the ground had been pretty soft there, but my knees were bleeding a little.  I shook it off, and we made it to the road leading to Aid Station 2.  Rog and his daughter, Melissa were there to meet us!

He chatted with us as we made our way down the road. We had to wait a few moments as the train went by, but it was a nice little break.  We got to the Aid Station, and found that  Kris and Paula had brought egg mcmuffins, but I didn't want anything.  I ate a little pizza, and they brought me potato soup, but nothing appealed to me. I drank the pop and ate half the pizza.  I used the bathroom, tried once again to relieve the chafing a little more, and we moved on. 

My friend Bill and a very nice Canadian, Amanda, had left right before us, and Dave and I tried to catch up a bit.  I took the next hill pretty slow, but I was still doing an ok lope on the flats and downs.  Bill still looked as fresh as when he started.  I got the opportunity to run with him and our new friend, Amanda from Canada, for a little bit, and they both cheered me up.  Dave had gotten pretty quiet and had stretched his lead in front of me a bit.  I hung out with Bill and Amanda for a little while longer, but then I caught back up to Dave when Bill had to answer a call of nature.

The sun was starting to get low, and we dug our headlamps out and began to use them.  I had enjoyed my time running with Bill and Manda, but Bill had his timing down very well, and thinking about time and cutoffs made me nervous.  I knew as long as I kept moving forward, even if I had to walk, I could make it.

Night settled in, and we weren't running as much, but still running.  I was being very careful in the dark with my step, doing a lot of hop-leaps, using my poles a lot, but still moving quite quick on the downs.  We made it out of the endless seeming section 3, to the Aid Station, where I got to see more friends.  I choked down some gels, a little pickle juice, and some broth, then we left.

This is when my race gets a little foggy.  I know Dave and I still ran a lot on section in the dark.  We did the Drake's Well loop for the second time, and jogged off and on to the school.  One thing Dave and I did to help each other was as we'd get tired, we'd say "Run to that cone.  Run to that flag"  And I made him laugh by saying "Run to that tree."  "Which tree?"  He knew which one I meant!

We did that on the way back to the school, and got cheered in.  We went in and changed.  I changed socks, bra and realized I had forgotten a shirt. Addressed the chafing again. I had a sharp pain in my back that had started a while back, I got some bio freeze that Paula was nice enough to rub in.  I walked out of the bathroom in my sports bra, for once, to tired and knowing that all the people were my friends and I didn't need to be that self conscious.  I put on a short sleeve shirt.  Kris said I should probably put a long sleeve shirt on, so I did.  My brain was pretty muzzy.  My friends Alisha and her husband Rich were there, and my friend Kim.  They were telling me I looked good.  

Rog was ready to pace me to at least Aid Station 2, where Alisha was going to pick me up.  Rog had run the 50k, and his legs were a bit tired, and he worried he wouldn't keep up with me(ha!). 

I don't remember what time we left the school - though I remember looking at the clock.  I remember petting some dogs as we left the school, and Dave catching up with us and staying with us a bit, but I was mostly walking, and I think he was in a bad head space, and left us behind pretty quickly.  Rog was up-beat, telling me I was moving at a good pace, and just having someone new to talk to and to tell me about his day and his race was great for me.  It woke me up a little.  Rog had seen a bear, while running with his friend Eva, and not long after he told me this, we came into Aid Station 1, and there she was.  I sat down and drank a cup of broth and a little coffee.  Nothing else sounded good at all.  Eva helped me roll out my quads with my hiking sticks to help them feel a little better, and we got out of there pretty quickly.  The young ladies at the Aid Station were great.  They got me in and out very fast.

It was near 1 am.  My biggest problems were I couldn't move very fast, not only because my quads were shot, and the chafing was just going to be a constant pain that I knew I had to just take, but I was muzzy with being tired.  I can't for the life of me remember what I talked about with Rog, but I know he was rooting me on and upbeat and told me I would do it!  (Though I did note, as we got close to Aid Station 2, he was checking his watch a lot).  We hiked down the road and across the bridge to the Aid Station.  He told me I'd have to get in and out pretty quickly and keep moving.  I agreed, I think.

I think it was around 3:30-3:45 am when we came into the Aid Station.  Alisha was waiting for me, and they sat me down and got me broth and coffee.  I tried to drink, I didn't want to eat at all.  My friend Allison took my headlamp and she and Alisha changed batteries.  My friend Mark came over with heating pads, and put one on my neck and shoulders and that was awesome.  Someone said I should eat, and I said I didn't think I could eat and Mark told them I didn't have to eat, I was awesome and tough.  I was shivering a little and I someone draped my jacket around me. I got my arms in the sleeves somehow, and got my gloves on that Alisha had found for me, and I got up and said, "Lets go."  I gave Rog a hug (I think, I may have hugged him in my head), and we set off.  I knew Alisha would give me the tough truth if I would make it or not.  I knew I was getting shorter on time, and I knew it was going to be close.

Poor Alisha.  The one good thing is I never stopped moving forward.  Sometimes, especially uphills, I was slow, but I kept going.  Alisha and I talked, she told me about how she had run the 50k with Kim, and they had a really good time.  She talked about her work, she asked about how I was doing. I told her I didn't think I was going to make it.  She said it would be close.  She said I had to keep moving, and she didn't know what time it was.  I told her I would keep going until they pulled me.

I was head down and grinding it out.  I have to say I remember having to pull over to go to the bathroom, and when I was finished, we walked 10 steps and there was the port-a-potty, which I laughed about then.  I kept thinking I saw bears, but they were just shadows, and I barely blinked at when passing through the boy scout camp, just called out my number and kept moving.  I kept drinking and eating gels, and the cold didn't bother me, not with gloves, long sleeves and a jacket, and I was warm when we went up a hill.

I just kept following Alisha's purple Hokas, and she kept hiking briskly.  I would tell myself in my head where we were as we went, as we came down to the near the rail road in the dark, and as we came up to plum dungeon before the descent back to Miller farm Aid Station 3, I could see the sky starting to brighten.

Dave and Paula were still there at Aid Station 3.  Dave looked about as good as I felt. I used the bathroom, and asked for coffee.  Larry, one of the regulars at the Aid Station, asked me how I wanted it, and I asked for cream and sugar.  He dumped ice in it for me too, and I guzzled it down, and I started whining that I wasn't going to make it.  He and Robin said I had tons of time until the cut-off, and I should just keep moving.  Larry said something to me that lit a little fire under me, back beyond the film of tired.  "You've never DNFed anything before.  Don't start now."  Or something similar.  I followed Alisha out of the Aid Station, and the sunrise was brilliant pink at the top of Cemetery Hill.

There was not really any more running on the trail at that point.  One foot, then another, step over root, over rock, into soft spot on mud, click-clack of hiking poles, this step down will hurt, ok done, move forward.  Uphill is good, hurts less, slower but hurts less, downhill, suck it up, go down quick, bite that lip a bit, down a bit more, ok. flat bits are great, go quicker, good.  It's ok if you don't finish.  Go until they pull you.  What if they pull me and I can't go out with my Dad on the coming home loop?  Will he be disappointed he came all this way up from Florida and not get to do that 7 miles? Will my friends be disappointed in me?  I should've trained harder.  

We made it down to the final Drake Well loop.  It was earlier than I thought.  9:45.  You can make it!  My shuffle became a little faster.  As Alisha and I got closer to the school, I think I perked up a bit.  I really really had to pee though.  And yes, I had missed the convenient port-a-potty right at the Drake Well loop.  We passed a bunch of runners heading into the finish, and some heading out for their coming home loop.  We were almost to the end of the bike path, and I knew I'd have to pretty much grab Dad and go when we go to the school, so I got off the bike path into some bushes while Alisha made sure no one was coming, then I started my hobbling shuffle to the school.

I don't think anyone thought I would make the cut-off, but we swung in, I asked for coffee, and my friend Rob G. was there.  I asked for an apple, Alisha handed pacing off to my dad, and we were off.  We trotted out of the school area, but I was pretty much back to walking.  I asked Dad how they had been doing, and told him now that I was out on the 7 mile loop with him, I was glad.  I knew I could finish the 100 miles, maybe not officially, depending on my time, but my goal had been to get out here, on this last bit, with him.

He loved the trail.  He walked about 15 paces ahead of me, and warned me if there was a rock, or if were were heading up or down or if it was flat.  He said he can see why we run here, and he never liked the idea of running on the road, but he would like this.  I suggest next time he comes up we could come hiking.  As tired as I was, I had to chuckle at him a couple times, especially on the Hill of Truth, when he kept saying "I think it's the top - it's leveling off"  because, I already knew.

We had no idea of the time.  We met a couple hiking and we asked the time, and it was 11:15. We were about 2 miles in at that point.  I had an hour and 45 minutes.  I kept moving.  A couple other groups of runners passed me.  I kept moving.  Dad and I kept moving and I kept declaring it was ok, I would finish no matter what, and Dad agreed and encouraged.  I kept looking back, and finally I heard voices, and the sweepers were there.  They were very nice when I asked if they were sweepers, and I thought - ok, sweepers - the race must be over.  I'm not going to hurry, they're not pushing me, I'm going to keep going, get off the trail and finish this thing.

We came off the trail, and they were tearing down the tent for the course marshals, and Jane, a friend and volunteer, called out "Do you want to quit, or keep going?  You have 15 minutes to make it 1.5 miles.  That's a 12 minute mile.  Tom Jennings said it's embarrassing to finish once the clock is stopped."

Now.  I love my trail family.  But 31 hours and 45 minutes on a trail, plus being awake for over 34 hours made me slightly... reactionary.  "I'm going to finish.  I don't care if I'm embarrassed!" 

And I started running.  Dad ran with me. We ran to the train bridge and I walked a bit.

"Embarrass this!"  I said, running 30 feet then shuffling again!

The Sweepers (Cyndi, Kathy and Sherry) ran behind me, cheering me on, telling me I had time if I kept moving.  I whined something, then I saw Jason coming down the trail ahead, with Eli.  He was waving his hand in a negating motion, that I wasn't going to make it.  I started to slow down, but then Rich came up behind him and said something like.  "You can make it!  You have to RUN though.  You can't stop."  

So I ran.

The sweepers told me to take off my waist pack, I did and gave it to them.  I think Jason took my hiking poles, and we RAN.  Rich was in front of me, Jason to my right, Dad to my left, and the sweepers right behind me.  They kept encouraging and telling me to take nice deep breaths and keep moving. We passed Alisha and Kim, who cheered me on.  Eli ran way up ahead, and I knew there was no way I was catching that boy.

I don't know how fast I was going, I just know the bike trail seemed a lot shorter than it had the previous times I had run down it in the last nearly 32 hours.  There was a slight slope up to the road, I kind of stopped running right there, power walked for a moment, then boosted back up into a run.  Then I saw Rog and Kris, and I saw Thea, and people in cars stopped and beeped and cheered, and I was almost to the bridge, and I'm thinking, How am I going to make it, am I going to make it. Then another trail mentor of mine, Jeff, is there saying, "You have three minutes!  You're going to make it!"  And that was all I needed to know.
I did it.  31:58:10  Almost 2 minutes to spare...

I... there's nothing like that finish was.  I find it hard to express how the wave of some of the people I care most about in the world carried me across that line and I was so happy and touched that so many people were there for me.  I will never, ever EVER forget it.  Dave finished the 100, after having some similarly poor moments that I did.  Bill finished the 100 miler with Amanda, our new Canadian friend - redemption for him for the previous year (I gave him a hug a little later).  My friend Heather finished, paced in by another friend, Adam.  My friends Rob and Pat finished.

There were many times I wanted to give up.  I wanted to quit.  I wanted them to pull me.  I wanted the buckle, then I didn't care about the buckle.  I just kept moving forward, which seems to be the biggest theme of this entire chapter of my life.  Keep moving forward.  Things do change, things do get better.  You meet these amazing people, you do things for them, they do things for you, not for any reason except you are cared for.

And this is why I trail run.  Because I am loved, and I love these crazy, awesome, amazing real people.  Thank you.  And don't ask me for a while if I'm doing this again...   

Family and Crew

Post race meal fortune cookie fortune.

The collection is complete.

Monday, August 31, 2015

If I were some Pennsylvanian Female Sisyphus - this would be the hill I would want to climb forever, carrying you on my back...

I found out a couple months ago that this would be the very last Mega Transect as it is known to me.  As it is known to the people that have run it all 13 years.  As it is known to people that have run it two years, or however many years people can get out to this magical little place in the heart of the woods in the center of our state.

It was my third year, and I signed up for the camping, for the after party, for the training and the challenge, and for the family.

Not my family here safe at the house in Meadville.  They know how I feel about them.  They know I go out to the trails because I need something there that makes me who I am.

I needed the trail family.  The family that I've built since starting trail running in 2011.  The family that knows you'll get injured at some point, and can offer advice.  Or you'll get burned out and need some time away from the trails.  Or that you can't run as fast as they can, but because it's a training day, they'll run with you for a little bit, and find out how you are.  That kind of trail family.

This has been a rough year since January.  I wanted that comfortable banter, the nostalgia of past races with good people.  The laughter and joking and gentle ribbing of each other over a hard cider or a beer.

So I went to the last Mega.

I finished the last Mega.

And I cried a little on the way home from the last Mega.

I didn't take many photos this year.  And I didn't stick with any one person this year.  I saw my friend Jeff off in the morning, as he would go on to relish in the "playground" that is the course of this race, and he would come in third.  I know he was bummed that this would be his only opportunity to run it.

 I drank coffee with my friend Kim, as she toed the line with a few other friends, hoping to hike the course.  Her breath was taken away at the boulder field.  I'm glad she made it down to see what this place is like.

I ran a few miles with Paula and David, remembering how Dave stuck with me last year, and this year he stuck with Paula, who even coming off surgery, finished super strong.

I watched my friends Roger and Ken come up to the top of the boulder-field, looking strong and hooked on trails as always.

I caught up to my friend Daren, who cut at least an hour off his time and who is now hooked on trail ultras.

I climbed the final ascent with my friend Brian, who had paced me for my first 100 miler, and I had paced him on his.

I gave the race director, and another friend, Dave Hunter, a giant hug when I finished this indescribable race.

And I missed the other friends who I had met here before.  The people that I had ran this with before, the family in other places.

And there will be more races, and there will be adrenaline and excitement and awe again.

But on a year when it's been rough, I'll still let myself be a little sadder that there won't be that specific boulder field to carry my "rock" to the top.  There won't be the speck on that hill from the camping area.  There won't be that Raw trail to set me to trembling...

Thank you, Mega Transect.  For your hills and rocks and clambers, for the blood and sweat that I've left there, and for that spark that I'll be looking for again, that you put in my heart the first time I climbed that mist covered boulder field.  I'll be back again, if only in the stories I'll tell, and in the pictures I'll share of a place that has given me the best trail running memories in my life.

My first time on the boulder field with RD Dave Hunter.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


I always had the idea to go visit them again in the future.  Always soon.  When things calmed down.  When I take a break from doing this crazy running thing.  When Eli gets older. When we do a cross country drive.  Or they'll be coming through here sometime on one of their adventures since they're both retired, then I can see them.

But my aunt passed away yesterday morning, suddenly and unexpectedly, and now I've lost that chance.

There's an emptiness and a grief now.  We always got a card at the holidays, we always got postcards.  There were facebook interactions, there was a visit when Eli was a baby.

But what I remember most was that joy between my aunt and my Dad's brother.  They were so in love whenever I saw them, so much fun to be around, so much kinship when we were all together as a family around my Grandma Hrach's dining room table, or crammed in the kitchen making sandwiches as everyone showed up for lunch.  I don't think we every laughed more when we were all together.

So my lovely aunt is gone.  But not gone, because she's in my heart.  She's in the hearts of my three lovely cousins and my uncle, and my cousins' beautiful babies.

Still my world feels a little dimmer today, but also a little smaller.  And today, I'll hug my son a little tighter, lean against my husband a little longer, and make sure the people I care about know that I care about them.

Today, live a full life, love deep, and forgive often.  You never know what will happen tomorrow.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Big Woods of Pennsylvania - A Long Walk

A journey always feels more epic when it starts with crashes of thunder, and that adrenaline burst that accompanies the arrival of a storm.

The Allegheny 100 Hiking Challenge (or A100 as those of us involved like to call it) is a point to point unsupported hiking event that happens in early June each year.  Though every two years it changes directions, this year we hiked north to south on the 100 mile portion of the North Country Scenic Trail that goes through the Allegheny National Forest.  The challenge starts Friday evening at 6pm, and finishes Sunday at 8pm.

Group photo right before the sky really opened up.

Myself and my good hiking buddies.

Now for those of you who are Ultra-runners, you know unsupported means, you have to carry all of your own stuff.  So we did.  

I've known for a year that I was going to do the challenge again this year after taking a hiatus from it last year to run The Highlands Sky 40 mile ultra.  I had done the challenge in 2013, and I still believe it was the best mental and physical training session I had to for the 100 mile ultra I ran that same year.
My hiking buddies not long after the start.

So this year it was back to it.  I have been gathering solo-hiking/camping gear for the past couple of years, and this year I decided last minute that I needed a few more things to be comfy.  I got a solo rain proof bivy (a tiny one person tent, really), a silk sleeping bag liner to use as my sleeping bag, since the temperatures would be warmer this year.  I also bought a ton of food.  I remembered not carrying enough food the first year, so this year I wanted to be prepared.

So Thursday night, I packed and repacked 3 or 4 times.  First, I wasn't happy with how things were fitting, so I changed packs.  Then I realized the orange pack was too big, so back to the red one.  Then I had too much food, so I split everything up into more baggies, and repacked the red bag again.  Then I went back through one LAST time and took only the things I needed to survive.  This meant eliminating a tiny flashlight (I had my headlamp), a hairbrush (who cares about hair in the woods), and the extra bag of Swedish red fish (they would wait at my resupply in the car).

Thing was, me and my hiking partners, Kim and Alisha, weren't quite sure how far we were going to make it this year.  The first year, we had all made it 50 miles, and last  year, Kim and Alisha had managed 50 as well.  This year we were shooting for 75 and had also arranged to keep going Monday to try to reach 100 miles if we had the feet for it still.  So I stashed a bunch of extra supplies in my car so that if my food-stuffs were depleted by 75 miles, I could grab some stuff to continue on.  Seventy-five miles was the goal.

 So after some car parking and juggling to get cars to as many access points as we thought we would need (one at the 100 mile finish, one at the official 75 mile finish, and one about 6 miles before the 75 mile finish), we were at the location to catch the bus to the start.  The bus ride was fun, as we chatted with fellow hikers who were doing the challenge.  There were about 100 people in total that were starting the challenge.  

We pulled up to the Willow Bay trail head parking area, and we could see a dark cloud to the west moving steadily closer.  We got off the bus, registered, then pulled our rain gear and pack covers on.  The organizers made a very brief announcement (the thunder was rumbling closer), then as the rain started, he shooed the 100 milers onto the trail, then everyone else just clumped across the road, climbed the guard-rail, and we were off, with a nice rain shower and rumblings of thunder sending us on our way nearly an hour before we were officially scheduled to start.  Five p.m. on Friday, and we sloshed into the Allegheny National forest, only about a mile south of the New York state line.

Inlet at Tracy Run and North Branch streams.  It had finished raining and everything was very calm.

Now before I get into the grit of the story, the ups the downs, the endless slogs through mud and many splashes through streams and run-offs, whether we survived (spoliers, we did), I want to go a little into what I had packed this year using what I learned from the first year.   I won't get into it it in excruciating detail, but if you want to know more, please email me!  

This year, my feet and food were my main priority.  There is no lack of fairly clean water in the forest, and this year the couple weeks leading up had been pretty wet, so all the streams were flowing nicely, and I took my steri pen and a pretty open mouthed .5 bottle to treat it before I poured it into my 2 liter hydration bladder.  This system worked fairly well, and we stopped a couple times a day to treat water and fill our bottles.

Stopping for water also gave me an opportunity to clean out shoes and socks (downstream from where water filling was happening - don't worry).  The mud and grit would collect in shoes and socks, making a gritty, cakey, toe-blistering haven.  So when we took a break, the shoes and socks came off and were rinsed out very completely.  I also had brought baby powder in a plastic bag, which I applied to my feet liberally before we slept each night.  Then in the morning before I put dry socks on (I had brought several pair of thin toe socks), I slathered my toes with Aquaphor.  I have to say, I had only one tiny blister when I was done, and my feet felt great.

The inlet leading from Johnnycake Run.  We stopped for a food break here.

So we were as prepared as we thought we could be, and were on our way.  The rain wasn't terrible, though I was glad to have my poncho and a hat on for the first hour.  The mud was slick.  There was no avoiding it, and the worst places were not where it was totally mucky, but where the trail was still mostly solid, but where there was a cant to the right or left or down where you would most likely slip off the trail if you weren't extremely careful.  Alisha and I both took some spills.  I fell on my knee on the second mile, and first blood was had by the trail.  It wasn't bad, just a long scrape.  I sloshed it of in the next creek, and we were on our way.

The forest was beautiful, if muddy.

Getting ready to move on from on of our first breaks.  A decent climb followed.

The trail is challenging.  There were some pretty good climbs that first evening.  As we were rolling into dusk, we left most of the muddiest portions and climbed up onto the ridge line.  I admit, I got a little homesick at this part, missing my family and my pups.  I had walked this portion with my older dog, Zoe a few times in the past couple of years, and I knew she wouldn't have done well on such a muddy long adventure. I missed her here though.

Up on the ridge, the trail was much nicer.

We started down from the ridge in a long descent that would bring us out on the road briefly to cross a bridge.  As it got darker, we saw other hiker's headlights in front of us, and lots of toads on the trail.  We must've seen more than a dozen of the little guys, and yes, I said hi to them all, but I just nudged them off the trail with my toe, or herded them off with my hiking pole.  

Our group of three had be joined by a friend of ours, Rob, and a new friend, Ashley, a hiker gent from West Virginia.  We spent the next few miles wandering along the edge of the Kinzua Reservoir.  We heard people whooping and hollering across the lake, so we whooped to them.  We saw people fishing along the edges with glow in the dark bobbers, and then, as we came out onto the road for a little even walking, we saw the lightning bugs.

Synchronous fireflies.  I had only learned about them a few weeks ago, and here they were along the edges of some weedy wetlands in the Allegheny National forest.  They all light up at the same time, and seeing it, was magical.  I grew up catching lightning bugs in Pittsburgh at my Grandma Hrach's house, in old margarine containers with holes punched in them.  At the end of a good night's catch, I'd just leave the container open and outside so they could all go free again.  The fireflies along Kinzua were amazing.  We didn't really stop, but for a good mile they kept up their light show.

After that, our friend Ashley stayed behind, wanting a break, and we pressed on, starting a long climb that would lead us to Route 59.  We planned to hike until around 1 am and then grab a few hours of sleep, wake at 5, and get back on the trail by 6.  After some challenging climbs, some thick fog, and some grown up areas where I clanked my poles together, just in case there were bears, we came upon this beautiful area of blooming mountain laurels (even at 12:30 at night).  The hills leveled out onto a double tracks with some clearings on the side, so we picked one and made our first night camp.

First night's camp set up.

The mountain laurel were amazing.

The double track with mountain laurel on each side.


As we continued and crossed 59, the terrain changed to a fern and peat moss covered area.  There was a small stream we stopped at in the morning to refill our bottles at, and it was crystal clear.  We followed it through the morning, and eventually it became a very wide stream.

So many ferns!

Though we had camped, none of us had rested very well.  I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep.  I may have dozed, but I was too wired from the night's excitement.  It hadn't rained since that first hour on the trail, but was overcast, so the hiking temperatures were perfect.  As the morning wore on, I stumbled here and there as I got sleepier.  I had brought a couple of flat cokes, an though I had drank one in the morning, the lack of caffeine was showing.

My other big problem for Saturday, was my left shoulder was radiating pain from carrying a 20+ pound pack.  I got to a point where I was lagging behind, and carrying my trekking poles, because it hurt my arm too much to swing it.  I finally begged some ibuprofen from Alisha, and after a short break, it felt good as new.
So many stream crossings - the water actually refreshed my feet most of the time, so I tromped right through.

My feet were also holding up well.  I really didn't try to avoid wet spots - I walked through them.  The mud was gritty, but it cooled my feet, and when we came to a stream in the late morning, we took about 10 minutes to again refill water and rinse out our shoes.

But our little group had a problem.  There were four of us sticking together, Alisha, Kim, myself and Rob.  Both Kim and myself were slow on the uphills, and we were losing time.  The four of us in our group discussed it, and we decided 50 miles would be enough of a challenge for us this year, with all the mud and rain.  We would contact Alisha's husband when we found signal.  So with the decision made, the stress of time taken off of us, we were able to enjoy the adventure a little more.

Checking the map.

Swedish fish - a endurance sport must for me.

A particularly beautiful foot care stopping place.

We came to route 321, and decided to have a lunch break on the bridge at Red Bridge.  Also it was an area with pretty good cell phone service, so both Alisha and Kim called their other halves and told them the updated plan.  Alisha told Rich we were going to go to the 50 mile mark (Henry's Mills), and that we would contact him when we had a better idea when we would be getting there on Sunday.  I think Kim told her Rob the same thing, but he said he could come get her right then, and she decided she would stop at Red Bridge, getting about 30 miles in for two days of hiking.  

Alisha and Rob G. and I finished our lunch with her, and then we all hiked down the road together, the three of us splitting from Kim when we reached the trail again.  She was going to walk a little further to a store to wait for her Rob to pick her up.  We gave hugs, instructions on gear (she was going to move stuff around for us), and we kept on going.

Our Red Bridge lunch spot.  Two other guys who were doing the challenge entertained us while we ate.

So we realized as we continued, that Kim had been smart, because the next hill was probably the hardest and steepest we had tackled yet.  The damn hill had us climbing about 500 feet in a little under a mile.  The nice thing though, the worst of the mud seemed to be behind us.  Oh it was still plenty squishy, and areas of mud and yuck, but not the canted slick stuff that we couldn't seem to get a footing on.
Alisha waiting patiently for me to take pictures.

Foot care break.

Rob waiting for Alisha and I to take care of our feet.

There were a lot of beautiful areas at the tail end of our Saturday hike.  We crossed route 6 to find a nice little area by a stream to take a break and take care of our feet.  We decided to hike to Fox's Dam, which had a few primitive camp site areas, and stop there for the night.  When we got there, it was still light, about 6:30, so we made a hot dinner (crap in a bag - it was so yummy), we washed up in the creek running by our campsite, and we set up the tarp.  It gave us enough time to sit and relax and talk, and still get a better night sleep then the night before.  Alisha and I chatted a bit into the night, but I learned, that if you want to talk to someone while camping, don't camp right next to a really charming rushing stream.  I also had an unreasonable panic attack during the night, because I kept thinking I heard voices or animals in the bubbling water sounds.  Lesson learned.

I also wondered at my own ability to keep going.  Alisha and Rob were both having foot issues, and Rob needed to be home Sunday early evening to help take care of his kids.  I debated continuing to the 75 mile mark alone, because I was feeling good.  But I really had no desire to go on on my own.  I thought maybe I could get them to drop me off at a different trailhead, and I would keep hiking on my own for a little bit.  I finally fell asleep debating how much further I could go on by myself.

Saturday night campsite.  I'm not sure why I didn't take a picture with the actual tarp set up... but it was getting dark quickly by the time I remembered.

We again woke at five, packed up and were on the trail a little after six.  We needed to do about 13 miles in 5 hours.  Totally doable.  We set off.

There's not much to say about the rest of the hike.  We gaped at the destruction left by a tornado still evident 30 years later in the uniform size of all the trees, and all the very large deadfall everywhere.  It was a dark and quiet area.  We came to some open areas through ferns where clouds of moths would rise up as we passed through.  It was like something out of a movie. 

Tionesta Scenic area, where in 1985, tornadoes tore a huge swath in the forest.

Alisha did get cell signal here, so we confirmed with Rich we would be at Henry's Mills around 11am.

Alisha was a good trail guide, having done the same section in the 2014 challenge, so as we started the long descent into Henry's Mills, we knew we were getting close.  Finally we heard Rich shout a greeting, and before we knew it, we were down and crossing the bridge, with a handful of people cheering us on.
The final part of the trail down.  Alisha waiting (not so patiently) for me to take pictures.

BURGERS!  They were making us burgers!  Rich had brought Alisha a diet coke, and me a Dr. Pepper, and even a root beer for Rob!  The burgers were the best tasting, and the sun had come out in the last couple of miles.  It was a perfect finish.  And I still felt good.  I ached, but it wasn't exhaustion, it was just a little over-use.

We chatted with a couple of the volunteers, threw our stuff in the car and gave a lift to another guy who had stopped at the 50 mile mark.  I decided I would go back to my car and dump my pack, and then determine if I would go out for a few more miles, or if I would drive home and enjoy a shower to get rid of my stench.

So I got back to my car, drank another Dr. Pepper, ate a candy bar, sat and enjoyed the AC for a little bit.  It had turned muggy and oppressive.  I got my trail map out, and took a look at where I was, and where I could go.  I was parked right on the North Country Trail.  And I could just hike or jog a direction down that way, but I started the car and drove up to another trail intersection, where the North Country trail intersects with the Tanbark trail.

I pulled up to the trailhead and got out of the car, and it immediately got dark and started pouring.  I climbed back into the car, and in a few minutes the shower had passed.  Then I realized I was a filthy mess and it wouldn't matter if I got rained on, so off I went.

This little guy was right by the trailhead.  He was a lot faster than his Oil Creek cousins.

Hrmmm.. which way to go...

The rain had pretty much stopped as I got going - crossed this road to get to the trail.

I started out walking, but my legs and feet felt pretty good, so I started a nice easy run. The trail was pretty flat in this area, and muddy, but I splashed and ran and jumped and felt really great.  My plan was to hike/run out 2.5 miles, then head back to the car, to try to get an extra 5 miles in, then clean up and go home.

Really beautiful section of pine woods in here.

Big rocks (for Kim's yard)

Now, everything would have gone fine, but suddenly it was getting darker.  And rumbly.  And then more rumbly.  I kept running at first, and then it started raining.  Then it was teeming down and the thunder was LOUD.  I looked down at my gps - 1.6 miles. Big boom of thunder.  That's plenty, I thought, and turned around.  Now it was dark and pouring and I was soaked, and worried that I had driven off to hike somewhere else, and I would be struck by lightning and killed and no one would every find me so I ran and ran and ran and then hiked and then ran more, and there was my car, finally, three miles later, and I was happy to be back at the car.

I'm really ok doing stuff by myself most of the time.  But when I'm alone, I'm my own worst enemy. I'm strong for people I'm with, and when I get alone, I yell at myself in my head for being stupid and wimpy.  I've been working on this with myself for many years, and though I've gotten better, I'm still way too rough on myself when doing unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places.   I've learned to be brave, but I haven't learned to be nice to myself about it all the time.

So being in the middle of the woods, and now pretty clean with the natural shower, I pulled off my clothes, dried off with an handkerchief, put nice clean dry clothing on, and got in the car and took a nice long drive home, back to my pups, back to my husband, back to my boy.

And next year I'll do even better.  Or do exactly the same.  I will have a great time either way.