Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why ask, prepare yourself, for the Call of the Wild

These are the Fables.  That's the song that line in the title is from.  The line ran through my head a lot this past Saturday as I ran through the woods in the middle of Pennsylvania, building my own fables in my head.

The wilds were certainly calling me, but when it's 90+ degrees and 95% humidity and calling for rain and storms one has to be of a... particular frame of mind.  I thought I had prepared myself for the Call of the Wilds.  I don't think I had, really.

So Friday morning, I decided to do my usual on the way to a race that's a little further away - I took the scenic drive and explored a bit.  I went to the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania and took some photos of clouds.  I had run my first 100 miler there back in 2013, and I drove around and reminisced fondly for a little while.

Pine Creek Panorama

I hit Wellsboro for an early dinner, and walked around town for a little while.  I bought an umbrella in a store, since I had forgotten one, and thought if I decided to hang around at all after my race or to support the 100 milers that were racing at the same time, I might want an umbrella.  I didn't know anyone personally who was getting there early Friday, so I knew I could take my time, roll in and pick up my packet before 8, and set up my little car-camping set up and have plenty of rest for the next day.

The Wellsboro Diner

I couldn't figure out what this contraption was...

I made it down to Little Pine State Park, where the race would begin and end.  The lake that was the headquarters was tranquil.  There were a lot of runners walking around, chatting with each other, and the vibe was calm.  It was hot and humid, and the cumulous clouds were popping up and beautiful.  I had hit several showers on my way, making for a scenic drive but the sky was blue, and I even stopped to snap a picture of an amazing rainbow that appeared a few miles from the park.
I picked up my packet, took a few photographs and walked around for a little while, then headed down to my reserved campsite.  It was super muggy.  I got a shower, hoping that a little cool water would relax me so I would sleep well.  Bad luck.  Push button showers with one temp - warm.  I rinsed off, put on as few clothes as I could decently get away with in a family campground, and arranged my bedding in my Forester so I could sleep. 

Little Pine State Park and Little Pine Lake

Even with the windows down, it was hot.  I had brought this bug-netting sheet (I don't even remember where I got it), and it was almost too hot to have that over me, but when I didn't have it over parts of me, the bugs ate me.  I read for a little while and eventually fell asleep.

I woke up around 5 am, and with no horses in the 100 mile race, I felt the rest would do me better than seeing them off.  As I was rummaging around getting my gear together, I heard cheering and shouts from a little way down in the campground, where the runners would pass through to get to the trail for the start of their 100 mile journey.  I would be starting in the same spot in a couple hours.

The morning air was already super thick.  In the pre-dawn light, my headlamp glow was fuzzy as I made my way to the camp bathroom to get dressed.  I put body glide everywhere.  I knew with the sweat and salt I would be a chafed mess before the end of the day if I didn't prepare.  Once I was dressed, I drove up to the race start to finish putting on my shoes and get my bib in place. 

Racers gathering for the start of the mountain marathon.

So, this race is tough. I did it last year, in 2015, coming off of a rough surgery. I've never done a trail race out west, but I've done quite a few out here, and this was easily the hardest, even for it's distance, that I have ever done.  And I signed up again this year!  There are five and a half (yes) hills over roughly 28-29 miles.  So it's over a marathon.  This one will give you ultra-runner status.  These are old mountains.  They were mighty and spiky and angry once, and the wind and rain and rivers worked at them and the age of a millennia made them shrug off their points and they shook their rocks down into gullies and their shoulders bowed over into rounded tall ridges.  They are quiet and stoic and proud.  And they will humble any runner who doesn't respect them.

I was humbled plenty last year, and though in the last couple of months, I was hoping to do better than my 10 and a half hours from last year, but with the weather, I knew I just wanted to finish and not get heat stroke or dehydrate or anything crazy.  I had 12 hours to finish.

I found my friends from Oil Creek, Rob and Mick at the starting line, and we caught up and wished each other the best, and then we were off.  There's about a mile of road before the runners break off onto trail, and I kept my pace slow.  My legs felt sluggish, and that immediately worried me.  I took it pretty easy on the road, knowing I had time, and by the time I reached the trail, there were only a handful of people behind me.  On the bright side, there was no bottle-necking.  The other really good thing, was I had brought my hiking poles with me this year.  I knew they would help exponentially on the ups and downs as my legs got tired through the race.  And I used them on the first hill.  And I regretted signing up for a second year.

The first hill was steep.  I fought mentally with myself about how I wasn't in shape, but it was also the humidity and the heat, and I didn't remember doing this poorly last year starting out.  But as humans we forget things, and I don't really remember how I did on that first hill last year, but I tried to shake myself out of my living in the past funk, and just concentrated on getting up that hill one step at a time.

Then it flattened out into beautiful ferny mossy trail, and I could run a little again.

Flat after the first hill!  Yay!  Four and a half to go!

Looking back at the first Aid Station.

I made it to the first Aid Station.  I had been thoughtful about the heat and had brought extra salt tabs, as well as a little ibuprofen and six gels.  I had taken two salt caps before the race, and by the time I reached the first aid station, my bottles were both pretty much empty.  I had the volunteers fill them up, I grabbed some Swedish fish(of course), drank Coke, water and gatorade, then headed out.

I had dumped a cup of water over my head as I was leaving the aid station, and the head band I was wearing was a little too drippy, so I took it off and wrapped it around one of my poles.  I started running through a really nice and gradual down-hill, it was lovely.  I was tailing a lady in a pink shirt, and she was a ways a head of me, so I took a short bathroom break when the course made a turn, but another trail kept going straight, I ducked off, then kept going.  The next climb started.

A lovely little bridge after the first descent.

Sweaty and hot. (but still smiley at this point, at least)

Starting up the second gradual but rocky ascent.

I started up the next hill, and it was very rocky, but gradual, so I could hike pretty quickly.  I was using my poles for balance and to help on the steep steps, and I noticed my head band was gone from my pole.  I mourned briefly for the bit of gear, and for the fact that I had left an article of clothing in the woods, and shook it off and kept going.  At the top of the next climb, the trail was beautiful.  I ran a little and caught up to the girl in pink, who's name was Janet.  We chatted and I found we were pretty much the same pace.  We talked the entire way down the next descent and into the next aid station.  I'm not sure which of us suggested it, but we pretty much decided to stick together.  We were doing better together just chatting which was making the time go by faster.

We stopped at the mile 11ish aid station, and they had pickles and ginger ale I ate a bunch of pickles, swigged ginger ale, gatorade and plenty of water, and also took two more salt-tabs.  I also tried the trick of sticking ice down my sports bra, as well as dumping water over my head and rubbing ice on the back of my neck.  The aid station volunteers had filled my bottles with ice and drink as well, so I was hoping I would stay cool on the next climb, which I knew was particularly tough. 

Janet and I left together and walked for a bit so that we weren't sloshing too much out of the aid station.  We did a little less than a mile along the bike trail, then started the climb.  Janet headed up in front of me, and though I did ok keeping up with her at first, as the climb grew steeper, I lost sight of her.  I felt like I was carrying a load of bricks on my back.  The heat and sun in the bits of exposed trail up the climb defeated me.  I don't ever remember my mood swinging so low so quickly in my life.  I sat on a rock for an hour.  Ok, not really.  It was probably like 45 seconds.  But I was so horribly demoralized by my sudden lack of oomph to get up this damn mountain, that I was bewildered.  I turned around and looked up.  And up.  And I moved forward.  In another 50 yards, I was forced to sit again, dizzy and exhausted.  I had drank enough, I had eaten enough, and I was done.  I pondered the trip down the hill back to the aid station to drop, and I thought of Janet ahead of me.  And I thought of the people rooting for me.  I decided I would most likely drop at mile 17.  I kept climbing.  I didn't sit again, but I slogged up, stopping occasionally.

I lamented that Janet was probably well ahead of me, but as I reached a flat bit on the ridge, I saw her up ahead.  I caught up with her, and we slogged on together.  At a break in the trees, we could see the rail trail bridge over pine creek that we had crossed not too terribly long before.

There is a tiny bridge over there we had climbed up from.

I found out from Janet that her family was running the "rogue" aid station that was ahead only a couple of miles.  They would have water and hopefully give us the boost we needed.  I came out of my funk almost as quickly as I had gone in, just having someone to be in contact with, and we kept each other company really well.  The miles went by quickly, and we soon came to some easier double-track, which we continued to hike. Even better, the clouds rolled in and blocked out the suck, I mean, sun, which really did make a difference.

We chatted about running, about being active, about kids, about health.  A runner came back towards us, warning us there was a rattle-snake ahead.  I had never seen one in the wild, so I took a very careful peek from a distance.  It was rattling at us and was coiled up, so we steered well around, and I took a picture, from a distance.  It was big.

Hi, Rattlesnakie!  We'll stay out of your way!

Janet's family's little rogue aid station was awesome.  They filled our bottles, had gatorade, misted us with water, and lifted our spirits considerably.  So did the sprinkling of rain that started.  The wind picked up, and we were on our way back down hill.  The down was rockier, but we did ok, and we came out to go up the mile 17 aid station.

Some nice easy running coming out of the rogue aid station.

I remembered the road up to the aid station being worse last year.  The sun was out, but Janet and I clicked our way up with our hiking poles, and we were soon refilling our packs, and I drank a lot of fluids, ate some pickles and they also had potato chips.  Nothing else really sounded good, and I had being pretty steady on salt-tabs and gels all day.  My stomach felt fine, and I had no interest in dropping now that Janet and I had pretty much decided to just stick together until the end.

I knew that we would both feel better later having helped each other, and we were already getting along great.  We left the aid station feeling refreshed, and also a little buoyed up that we were going out in a small group of people, who were all about in the same mind set of just grinding this out and getting it done.

We started up the next set of switch-backs, and the wind picked up and thunder started rumbling, and sprinkles came down.  It felt so good, and I felt like a new person, mentally.  The lightning and thunder made me slightly nervous, as I was carrying poles, but though the rumbling was loud, it didn't seem to be on top of us, and we climbed up alternating talking with just working up the hill.  We were at the top of the fourth hill.  Only one and a half to go.

The cloudy vista at the top of hill four.

We had picked up another friend, Bob, and the three of us hiked strong through the woods.  At this point, yes, I was feeling good enough to run, and I decided that mentally, I would benefit much better from just staying with my new friends.  We would be good for each other, and make something bigger than a race time.  New trail friends.

The trail was beautiful up on this ridge.  If one wasn't too exhausted from getting up there to enjoy it.

The lovely little runnable sections just get your spirits up before the really steep and rocky downhills.

The next downhill was super steep, rocky, and we didn't gain any speed.  The rain had tapered off, but the clouds remained, which kept us at least a little cooler.  The switchbacks down were steep and rocky, but besides a few slips and toe-bangs, I did ok.  My big toes were hurting some from the steep downs, but everything else felt pretty good.  Except chafing.  I had sweated and salted all the body glide off, and was hoping the next aid station had some vaseline.

We finally made it down the hill, to the endless rolling green.  You come down off the hill and expect the aid station to come up quickly, but it's a little over 2 miles until you get to it.  I was feeling good, but I just hiked quickly and would pause and wait for Bob and Janet.  I was hoping to scout out the aid station and give them a happy "WOO" once I had gotten there.

The endless rolling green 2 miles.

I ran down to the aid station, whooping and cheering.  I have to say the final aid station was the best of the day.  Two little girls were right there as I came in with a hose, to cool us off.  The volunteers took my bottles, offered paper-towels to wipe my eyes from the salt and sweat.  They had vaseline, so I quickly took care of that, and I jabbered and talked good-naturedly to them as I ate (too many) dill pickles, had more potato chips, and drank ginger ale and water to hydrate.  We knew the next hill would be tough, but we had made this aid station well before the cut-off.  There was nothing between us and the finish except one and a half hills.  We said farewell to our new aid station volunteer friends, and set off up the hill.

Goodbye, Jersey Mills aid station!  We love you!

I was going to take a picture of the Torbert trail - but I don't think anything could quite do it justice.  It's 1000 feet of gain in about three-quarters of a mile.  It's not precisely straight up, but you wouldn't want to tip backwards on it.

It went much better for me this year.  I'd call out a tree in front of us, and we'd get to it, pause for a few seconds, then move on.  We did this until the trail once again flattened out, and we were up on the top of the mountain, hiking a nice flat.  I apologized to Janet for talking so much, but we were moving well.  I knew Janet's feet and especially her heels were bothering her, and she wasn't looking forward to the last downhill.  I wanted to make sure she made it down without too much stress.  Bob had made it up the hill well ahead of us, so it put our little group back at two.

The downhill was steep and slick and rocky.  I'd go down the trail 50 feet, and wait a little for Janet, and call back and make sure she was ok, or call out if it was slippery or steeper or starting to flatten out.  She was quiet, so I knew she was concentrating, but I kept being cheerful, and we finally made it to the bottom, where there's a strange old hunting cabin across a little bridge.  I knew we only had that half of a hill left, and then a little further on the trail and we would be finished!

Strange little lonely lodge in the woods.  (A small bit of research says it's the Love Run cabin)

We start up the last ascent, quite gradual compared to the others, and Janet says, "Does it seem really dark to you, it feels like it's eight o'clock."

The sky was getting darker.  And the wind picked up.  We made one more turn to go up the ridge, and the rumbling started, and was getting closer, and was even windier.  As we hiked, I told Janet if she heard any cracking falling trees, to get to the nearest tree trunk and cover her head.  

This picture was my ipod's interpretation of how dark it was.  It wasn't quite that dark to human eyes, but still.

We made it up to the top of the ridge and the top of the final hill just as the storm hit.  Wind, rain and thunder.  The flashes of lightning happened but didn't seem very close.  I wanted to run down the mountain, but I wouldn't leave Janet.  And it was pretty amazing and exhilarating even if it was scary.   I think I may have shouted some embarassing comment about being the storm.  It's what you do when you're a nerd girl who reads too much fiction.

I went forward, then waited, forward then waited.  We had some rocks to scramble down as we started to drop back down from the ridge.

We had made it back to some less technical single track that would take us to the last final down before we reached the finish line, when a flash and an almost immediate crack hit the ridge to our right.  I probably should have flung my poles, but I just kept moving.  We were both a little shaken, but we kept going.  The rain slowed, and there were still rumbles, but nothing as close as that one, and we hiked as quickly as we could to get out of the woods.

Last beautiful bit of single track.

I started to hear cheering, so I let out a "WOO"  And it was answered not far ahead.  Janet recognized her husband's voice and his cousin, and we crept down the last steep hill to be greeted by them, and escorted to the finish line.

Janet and I, almost out of the woods!

 We made it to the finish!  Janet's family was there to greet her, and Rob and Mick had waited for me to finish!  I was so happy to see them, and was happy to be done! 

Finally at the finish!

The storm blew out after a few more flashes, and I had a nice post-race piece of chicken.  I said farewell to my friends, old and new, and left to get my shower and assess my chafing.

It was a really tough race, but I almost have to say, even though it took me longer, after that first mental break, I think I had an easier time this year, due to sticking with another tough lady who was just in it to finish.  And we toughed it out.  Through heat and humidity, through wind and storms and lightning strikes, we made it.

Besides my fairly bad chafing, I didn't have too many issues.  My stomach did well on nothing but e fuel gels and pickles and Pringles and a few Swedish fish.  I drank mostly water or gatorade and some ginger ale at the aid station.  The only time I had a stomach problem was when I ate a cliff gel before that very last hill, and it sat in my stomach like a lump.

I've had bad chafing before, and I know it will heal, and though I said it so many times yesterday that I will never do this race again... there really is something about not denying the Call of the Wild.  And maybe next year, I'll be even a little better prepared.

Good bye, Little Pine.  I hope to see you again in the future!