Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mega Running? Ultra Jogging? Ultra... brain loss?

When last we heard from our protagonist, she had just finished a 100 mile race, and was suffering a bit of post-100-depression, wondering what was next, what the meaning of life was, etc.

Then she remembered she had signed up for this Mega-Transect thing that she had heard lots of... interesting things about from various friends and acquaintances, running buddies and hiking buddies.

Had she heard of the gnarly-ness?  The boulder field?  The proclivity of rattlesnakes in the area?  Broken bones?  Gruesome uphills?  Devastating downhills?  Oh sure.  But she had run a 100 miler.  She was a veteran of the Oil Creek trail races and the Allegheny North Country Trail Challenge.  How hard could it be?

Pride before a (thankfully not literal) fall.   This event, this place... is beyond expression really.  But I'm going to try.

Friday evening near sunset - That little grey dot in the middle is the boulder field.  Not intimidating at that distance.

I left Meadville just a bit after lunch, and met my friends Rich and Alisha at their home in Mercer, PA.  We threw camping gear in their CRV and hit the road.  The trip was fun, chatting about their recent trip to Utah, my recent 100 miler, and them giving me a few hints and tips about the Mega.  As we went further east along 80, the fall foliage was really showing bright reds and oranges and yellows.  It was a beautiful drive.

We got into Lock Haven around 5:00, and set up camp.  We also met a new friend who was acquainted with Rich, and Rico was an awesome guy.

Now, though I'm an outdoorsey girl, this was the first time I had used this particular tent.  I haven't camped before a race before, and the few days before the Mega had me antsy if I should drive my own car and just sleep in the back, or if I should camp.  The weather looked like it would be perfect, and I was tired of being a wuss with the camping, so I packed enthusiastically for "roughing" it, though there were showered and port-a-johns and real bathrooms at the Mega Start/Finish, so roughing it was not so rough.

Home Sweet Tent

So I set up my tent, organized my gear, and we picked up our packets.  Part of the race packet was a map of the course, and a really nice half-zip hoodless sweatshirt.  Rich and Alisha bought me a Mega bumper sticker for my Ultra-mobile, and we grabbed a bit of a snack and visited with a few people before heading off for dinner.

Really nice campsite on the Castanea Fire Company Picnic grounds.  The Blue-green tent is mine.

Dinner was satisfying, and I did fairly light after my less than auspicious pasta meal before the 100.  We got back a little after dark, and the stars were bright and we visited with Rico and Jason, our camping buddies, and I crawled into the tent around 9:30.  I had been wearing shorts and flip flops around camp, and had wrapped my legs in a blanket, but icy feet kept me awake for a while, but I eventually dozed off.  I woke a few times during the night, due to unfamiliarity, but overall, similar to what I sleep before a race anyway.

Our "camp" rose groggily around 5, and I got my running basics and a jacket on, and we walked up to grab some breakfast.  The race volunteers had music going, and I was greeted David Hunter, the RD, and Brian Newcomer, a good friend who had paced me at my 100, and who I would be pacing the following weekend at the Oil Creek 100 miler.  I had a quick cup of coffee (not enough, as I would find out later), a cinnamon raisin bagel plain, and a half of a banana.  I used the facilities and headed down to the tent to finish getting ready.

I made sure I was significantly covered in body glide in all the necessary areas.  No need to learn mistakes more than once.  I made sure my shoes were laced and my gaiters were good to go, and headed out to wait with Rich and Alisha for the start at 7:00.  It was foggy and cool, the perfect weather for running, and the temp was supposed to stay below 75 for the day.  My kind of weather.

I'm not sure how many people started.  I don't have the hard numbers, but I remember registration day the website crashed as 950 slots filled in minutes.  So I'm guessing over 800 racers started, plus the family and volunteers and spectators... there was quite a crowd.  But instead of being intimidated, as I thought I'd be, I was energized.  As the RD counted down the start, we surged into the crowd of people, and it swept like a tide out the back paved road down along Bald Eagle Creek.   Alisha and Rich had talked about the bottlenecking on the trail, and that it was good to keep a brisk pace on the road, so we did.

Uphill through the foggy residential area.

We started uphill into a neighborhood where people on their lawns cheered us on.  We walked a bit as it got steeper, but I was feeling pretty good, if a bit out of breath at the pace.  I chatted with my friend from Oil Creek, Mick Quen, who was trying to catch Ken Zellars.  He pulled away from me pretty quick, and I wouldn't see him again until after we finished later in the day.

The paved road changed into a dirt road, and then made a sharp left onto a bit of rocky double track.  There was a bit of a water aid station, and I grabbed a cup and drank, but I was pretty good on liquid with my waist pack with two bottles, one gatorade and one water.  Rich, Alisha and I were sticking together, and I made some comment about how rocky the trail was.  They chuckled at me, and I wasn't sure why... I would find out... 

The woods really were beautiful... when I had a moment to pause and not be looking at my feet or feel like I was holding the person behind me up... 

The trail was rocky and technical.  I couldn't lift my eyes up, and we were climbing and climbing and climbing.  We climbed nearly 1000 feet, then dropped back down again.  The trail was crowded.  People passed, we passed some people, but mostly it was just a trot or a walk because of the rocks on the trail, or how steep the climb was.  I was still excited about a new trail, new terrain, and I kept asking how far to the boulder field.  We hit mile 6, and there it was.  I'm not sure how many amazing things I've seen in this world.  When I was hiking the North Country Trail and saw expanses of ferns; or when we visited a place in England called Beacon Hill, where the view and the weather took my breath away; when we visited Stonehenge and the weight of history and time made everything else fall away... it was the same seeing the boulder field close up, coming up on it from the woods and it stretching out above me and all these other little tiny humans who were looking for something out here on this trail...

I don't think I had words.  I bubbled over like that crazy little girl that used to climb trees and catch snakes and pick blackberries and come home with bruises and scrapes and tangled hair.  And I climbed.  Like a goat or a monkey.  With excitement and fear and exhilaration.   This was life.  This was living.  And I smiled and laughed and trembled my way up that rocky field of boulders.  I called out to the people behind me when a rock would tip a bit.  I would peer down into a crevasse to make sure I didn't see any coils, or hear any rattles, and I climbed and clambered.  I watched my feet, I watched my hands, I watched other people.  I'd stop when the rocks were stable and large and turn around and stare down where I had come from and out over the valley.  Chills.

Almost to the boulder field.

And it kept going up.

And I'd stop and look back at the fog and the hills.

And we kept climbing.

And you rounded a corner to think you were done - but there was more!

And then I was at the top, breathless from more than just climbing.

I think about two thirds of the way up, the amazement didn't really off, but I think a bit more fear worked its way in.  Maybe it was the woman who stumbled and cried out as she nearly lost her balance; maybe it was the having to wait to go forward as someone would step into the spot I wanted to move to; I think it may have been the controlled going to my knee on a rock when my foot slipped a bit.  I left a bit of blood up there on the boulder field, but I made it, winded, and waited for Alisha who was only a little way behind me. 

Rich had gone ahead, he was feeling good and we couldn't match his pace on the runnable portions anyway.  We left the boulder field and headed across Rattlesnake Ridge, a thin line of flat rocks up along the ridge line.  Then we went down the Winchester.  I think this was my least favorite bit of the trail.  Coming down on rocks that moved and bit into my light weight trail shoes (my mistake), and coming 3 weeks off the hundred, my left hip and right knee were really hurting.  We came down the decent and the rocks thinned enough to do a little running, and then we turned onto a logging road and ran a good mile a steady clip.  My hip and knee were hurting, but I was hoping to run through it and that they would loosen up.  I was also hoping for maybe a little ibuprofen at the aid station.

I think the words I uttered most here were "ow. ow. ouch. ow."

On the climb up towards the aid station, Alisha offered me some ibuprofen, and I took it.  I generally don't take pain meds during runs, but I was hoping this would at least allow me to run a bit more, and finish.  It worked in about a half hour, and I was happy.  We came into the aid station and filled up our bottles.  I had been having gels at intervals and drinking plenty, and I grabbed a pb half sandwich and a cup full of swedish fish (of course) and we were back on our way.

The forests along the trail were beautiful and varied.  I will be going back at some point to better spend some time admiring them, instead of my feet.

We worked our way to the next aid station, and again, it was some beautiful trail.  We could run quite a bit as we came down towards the McElhattan Reservoir and the aid station there.  There was a beautiful waterfall right before it, and I snapped a quick picture before continuing on.  Another place to revisit.

The Waterfall right before the reservoir.

Throughout the day we ran with many different folks at different times.  Most were very friendly and we talked about races and running and Ken Zellers was there behind me on the boulder field and said hi - he had not missed Mick, he was just behind him at the start.  A few people were a bit rude, and I noticed quite a bit of trash had been dropped on the trail.  With the amount of people out there, not everyone can be having a good day, and not everyone is going to be as careful as the next one.  I picked up a bit of trash here and there, and was careful to pack out my own things and dump them at the aid stations. 

McElhattan Reservoir

The reservoir aid station gave me a chance to use the facilities and get a bit more to eat and drink, though I'm not sure I got enough.  A couple miles into the next section, I started to feel bonky.  We crossed McElhattan Creek several times, each time with our feet more wet, until finally we just plunged through, and the cold water was refreshing on my feet.  I even lunged down to dunk my knee once to give it a very brief "ice bath."  But though the trail became more runnable, I was out of energy.  I had been eating gels and drinking plenty, but it wasn't working.

We got to a place called the Giant Steps, which were a rock formation that were very much like giant stairs.  I am a not tall person, and heaved myself up the best I could.  I was also trying to stuff more food into myself to try to shake off the feeling of weakness and sleepiness that was threatening me.  We finally pulled into the central aid station, and I asked for caffeine.  One very nice guy working the water table said that they didn't have any caffeine, but he might be able to find me some coffee from the morning.  I begged, and said I didn't care if it was cold, I just needed something.  He brought me, what I'm assuming, was his personal leftover coffee from dunkin' donuts, and even asked if I wanted cream or sugar.  I thanked him gratefully and guzzled it down black, then poured a couple of cup fulls of water over my head.  I seriously felt as good as new afterwards.  I hope that gentleman reads this and knows HOW HAPPY he made me!  Thank you thank you thank you mystery aid station man!  And we were off again - the home stretch!

More pretty forest and ferns.  They smelled so nice.  I thought of laying down in them, but I thought I might get covered in chipmunks or bears or rattlesnakes.

Less than 10 miles to go.  We were running a bit now, but we were tired and ready to be done and having food and party-type things.  We did a bit of a climb, and then were on the ridge line at Rote Overlook.  It was beautiful.  I took a couple pictures, and then we hurried along, but I'll come back here too, believe me.

Oooo!  Overlook!  Ahhh!  I wish the picture could really do it justice.

We were running as much as we could coming off of the ridge and down along another stream.  the rocks were still treacherous in places, and I had a couple of near butt falls and headlong stumbles that I caught myself from as my feet were getting tired.  With the dunking my shoes had taken and my feet not as tough from a summer not running trails, every bump against the side or top of my foot was not pleasant, and I let out many ouches and hisses.  We did a few more creek crossings to the final aid station, and didn't linger as we continued up to the last real challenge of the race.

The Raw Trail.  Or RAWR Trail.  What a final thing to throw at us.  Those crazy race board people!

Looking back down at the climb on the Raw Trail.

The Raw Trail.  It was a straight up climb.  Using trees to pull ourselves up.  My heart was pounding, and we were climbing up a dirt trail, and then it turned into a mini boulder field itself.  I was sweating and trembling and at this point, I think the novelty was almost lost on me... but not quite.  I still couldn't help smiling a little and shaking my head.  I was a little grumpy about a few people that nearly stepped on me in their rush to get ahead of me, slow chick that I am.  It was fine, but please, don't threaten my safety with your personal goal. Ok, rant over.

We made it to the top, our legs shaking and exhausted, and it was another rocky long descent to where we came back out to the double track where we had started.  We did sort of a painful sideways trot/jog down the slope until we reached the dirt road, and settled into a nice steady downhill trot, even as the dirt road turned back to pavement.  We were thrilled to be almost done.  Three miles left.

I was silly with the thought of being done, and as we reached the final real expanse of not-road, the green mile, I thought about rolling down the little grassy slope to where this grassy mile along the expressway started.  It appealed to me more than putting my knees and quads through one more downhill... but I was worried that my waist pack bottles would dig into my kidneys, so I staggered down, and we ran some, walked some until we were through.

We picked a few people off on that flat and on the road, and we came around the corner to by far the biggest crowd at an ultra that I've seen.  People screamed us in, and we sprinted to the finish.  Someone put a medal around my neck and a bottle of water in my hand, and we were done!  Success!  Brian and David gave me a hug and congratulated me.  Rich was there to give us hugs and pointed to the pizza.  Yay!  Pizza!

The finish!  Party time!!!!!!

The rest of the evening included the best bbq chicken, ever, a few hard lemonades, another half of the best bbq chicken, and soup.  The cold shower wasn't even too bad, and it was nice to be clean and non-gross.  And that pesky toenail from the 100 miler is gone.

Will I do the Mega again?  The day after is probably not the best time to ask.  I will be back in some form or another I think.  The rest of the after-race evening was filled with chatting with good racing friends, giggling hysterically about how crazy we are to do these things.

Overall, the Mega humbled me.  I knew it was going to be challenging, but I had no idea just how hard it would be.  Even with the 100 miler I just did, this was truly the most challenging thing I have done physically.  I feel pretty good coming out relatively unscathed, and just a bit sore.  All kinds of people are there to do it, and it is a really well done and amazing event.  The volunteers were amazing, the cheering crowds were wonderful, and the after party, second to none.  If you want to push yourself beyond what you think your limit is, this is definitely something you don't want to miss.  And even if I don't hike/run the course next year, I think I'll be there to enjoy some great friends and a great party.


Talus said...

Great report. And you didn't even use the D word.

mary kowalski said...

Great pictures and a nice review.
Congrats on your First Mega. I agree with you too, that the post race(and pre race)food, fun, and camaraderie are second to none. And the volunteers are fantastic and enthusiastic.

Lance J Orndorf said...

That was, truly the greatest explanation of the mega! I too did my first yesterday and really enjoyed your photos, mostly because I was to humbled to photograph it!

Thanks and Congrats!

Rick Edler said...

Thank you. Very well done.

TheRunningHacker said...

What a great race, great race report, awesome pics! Nice finish so soon after the 100 too.

Shellyrm ~ just a country runner said...

Great report! Congratulations on adding Mega to your running experiences. It's a great one.