This race was my crazy summer race. I knew how hard the Eastern States 100 mile was. It was a course that has been ranked as one of the top 10 hardest ultramarathons around. With elevation gain close to 30k and descent also close to 30k, I would be running the same elevation of summiting Mount Everest and then descend down to sea level all in one day while navigating through the rocky, wet, muddy and mossy trails that are Pennsylvania. What am I thinking!?
I was motivated by the fact that by finishing this beast of a race, that I could gain a lottery ticket to Western States. But getting to the finish line would be a challenge in of itself.
When I signed up for this race, I knew that it would be out of my wheel-house in terms of my skill sets. I am used to running well in ultras that range from 50-100k on technical but really runnable trails: races like Cayuga Trails or JFK suit me well. I had experimented with true rugged East Coast mountain running trails and races and had finished with mixed results. I spent my timein the Summer working on building my climbing and descending strength but found it hard with starting at a new golf club to be able to carve out the real rugged training needed to truly be prepared for the race. I could make the time, but found I did not have enough time set in one day to make the little voyage to the Sourlands. I did do some nice hill repeats and had numerous solid long runs that prepped me well enough for the race. I have found that keeping to my core training with hilly road runs, flat and faster tempo runs on our canal path in Princeton, and some trails out near the Sourland Mountain park would give me a nice mix of training ( though was limited in my time there).
The Struggle with CARBS!!!
I had struggled from insulin issues where I would ultimately spike my insulin tolerance to such a high level that by the latter stages of an ultra, my body would not only struggle to absorb the nutrition I was putting into it, but my body was revolting against the sugar of the fuel, which would make me feel even more lethargic and sick.
I read about Keto and more fat-adapted endurance training. I started experimenting with training my body to be better at processing FAT AS FUEL and by utilizing my own natural fat stores. The idea would be to allow my body to be more efficient in terms of burning fat so that I could rely less on my Boom gels and Tailwind so that my insulin levels would be more even-keel throughout every mile and stage of an ultra. I tried out morning fasting runs where I would drink only 14 ounces or so of water and then head out for a run. At first, those trainings sucked, but soon my body began to adapt. I could event go on a 15 mile training run and just fuel with water. I always had my gels if I needed them, but I was not married to having to use them every 35-45 minutes. For optimal training, it was now a gel every hour which gave me the same effects of fueling and energy that I would get from taking two of them. I trained with eating avocados, cheese and olives. Everything was coming together and my body felt less tired from eating and I could wake up early in the morning and get going without much stimulus, like coffee. There is a ton of information on Fat adaptation and I think that we all can be better at it, but like anything, you need to find your limits. For some athletes, they take 8 gels in a hundred miler and drinks water only. For me, I need that fuel, but I was able to do so at a level that was more strategic: when I really felt a low, I can take a Boom gel and it fills my body like rocket-fuel and each time I use it, I get a major boost from mile 1 to 100. Eastern States would be my test at using 40% of my fuel as fat. I also would be debuting a new tank of a trail shoe with 361 degrees, the Yushan. It was a pretty burly shoe coming in around 12 ounces but with a full-length rockplate and a strong re-enforced knit upper, I knew it would be a good choice.
After Cayuga Trails, Eastern States came in no time and then was soon in the car with Ashlee as we headed to Pine Creek. We drove after I finished work on that day and made it to the race site by 10 pm or so to catch some sleep in our Honda CRV. It was a pretty wild day at work and I was exhausted. We caught some shut-eye to a miraculous backdrop of stars totally illuminating the night sky.
The next morning, we kicked off the race at 5am and off we began our 100 mile journey. The weather for the race was going to be cool in the morning around 50 and then warming up to about 82 degrees with low humidity, a rarity for Eastern States. Usually, this race in August is a hot swamp of a time but for today, the Course Record could go down. A course record time of 20 hours and 30 minutes seemed like a solid goal to shoot for. As we set out on our journey, I packed-up with a nice group as we ran through the mossy trails in true darkness except for our headlamps lighting a small passage through the dense forest.
We hit our first major climb fairly quick and so that game that is Eastern States began. This race has 19 or so climbs/ summits throughout the 100 miles and as you can see the profile is up and down slick, rocky terrain the whole time. This is Pennsylvania, where the trails are not dirt tracks, but rather pretty rugged foot paths.
My race plan was to conserve energy at least through the hardest first 40 miles of the race, and then look to start to pick up the pace. I was able to follow that pretty well. I shared some miles with Lantz and was able to catch some insane summit views from the Midstate trail. It was amazing being 2000 feet above the ground floor looking down as if the people down below looked like ants. We then meandered onto the Pine Creek trail, a rail trail where I had attempted to run my first 100 miler race but succumbed to severe muscle cramping and a muscle pull around 80 miles into the event. It felt great to open up the stride some. We then hit another climb where I was able to pick up some spots after power-hiking really strong on this climb and then descended down to the 17.8 mile aid station at the Resource Management Nature Center, where I would meet my wife and super-star crew chief to get some much needed supplies. Through the first 18 miles, I had consumed no gels and drank 9 ounces of tailwind with the rest in my pack as water. I felt incredible. As I came into the aid station, I linked up with a few other runners, one of them being Andy from New Hampshire as we fueled up, we hit the bathroom and then was out of there in no time. For my fuel, I had a banana and some avocado fuel packs that were soooo good.
As myself and Andy along with another runner made the next climb: this next section was on a nice gravel road and we talked about working together through the miles. We currently had been running on pace for a low 19 hour finish and things felt like it would be a magical day. We talked about how the guy up front by the name of Wesley Atkinson was hammering the course as he was about 20 minutes up on us already just 20 miles into the race.
The next sections were pretty incredible. This race course is so incredible and scenic that I do not think there is anything like this in the world. And to imagine all of the oak and pine trees, to swampy sections and incredible mountain vistas as well as high prairie, this race course was tough to believe we happened to be running in Pennsylvania.
Soon Andy and myself were running together and I learned about his running at York College and his work life as a nurse. It was fun to connect and spend those miles and hours together out in the woods. The uphill creek section was a tough one for me. It is a climb of 6.5 miles gradual enough but such a narrow trail that one misstep and you fall into a very rocky, mossy creek. It did not seem so bad to begin with but it is trail running where you have to focus on every foot-fall on this uneven terrain. This section really taxed me mentally and I let Andy go ahead a little bit.
After the next aid station I ate a bunch of pickles and started to catch Andy and then we were back together again. My Yushan trail shoes soon became pretty heavy from all of the moisture of the creek crossings and of the environment and I was looking forward to the next aid at 38 miles to see Ashlee and do a sock and shoe change. I loved the protection of the shoe, but the traction was not burly enough to really grip well on this unusual footing that Eastern States dishes out. We made our descent into Hyner Run and it was awesome to see Ashlee and many others cheering us on. We were now in 2nd and 3rd place. 1st place was up 40 minutes on us and it was wild to hear how much time he was up on us. We thought he could blow-up! The hardest parts of the course in terms of climbing was now over with, though still many more climbs remained.
We took 5 minutes to fuel-up and change our socks and shoes as well as our packs as I switched from my Nathan Vaporkrar 12 L to the lighter 4 L option and man did that help! I now was starting to need more fuel so I had some goat cheese and olives, more avocados and 1 Boom gel to give me a boost. I left that aid station re-invigorated. After the next climb we hit a weird overgrown ATV trail section and what I call the high plains section as we reached the peak of this section into the net aid station, it was like we were in Colorado on top of a 14-er. This was a section that Andy had a low patch as I set the pace and separated by a minute or two. With my switch of Fits Socks and now lighter trail shoe with the Taroko, I felt like I was cruising! We both pushed on really well.
At that next aid station, the warmth of the day was starting to get to me a little with my legs needing more salt. I downed some pickles and that helped rejuvenate me yet again. I felt good for a couple of miles then, I needed more salt and Andy helped out with a salt tab. I was going through a rough patch here and let Andy keep trucking along, as I re-grouped. As I struggled through, I made it to the 54.7 mile aid station and the heat was hurting me some, but I was only a minute behind Andy. I took the time to fuel-up and then headed out. This would be an important section because it would be another 10 or so miles before I received aid and I would be greeted by Ashlee at the big aid station. I struggled through the washed out trail for about 2 miles then finally all of the nutrition and salt I had put into my body started to metabolize and started hitting high 7 and low 8 minute miles, I was BACK! I flew through this section into the creek bed section where it became another gradual singletrack creek climb which I was so sick and tired of already at this point. I thought I could be superman and hop across the wet creek crossing and then the course of my race changed in an instant.
“WHACK!!!” I slipped on the rock and slammed down onto the sharp Pennsylvania creek rock. I bounced back up and got to the other side. As I started to run, I could feel the blood rushing to my back as it felt like it was on fire. Those next few uphill miles was where I grappled with my mortality in this race. Soon running uphill became walking uphill as my back locked-up completely like I had a wooden board shoved through the back of my spine. Every step I managed to take took all of the concentration and composure I could must just to progress forward. As I reached the top of the climb, I was in so much pain. I looked at my watch and at this point I had gone 7 miles or so from the last aid station. I was almost to the aid but by this point, flat I could manage but anything uphill or downhill, I had to crawl just to move ahead. As the day became the late afternoon, I soon worried if I would be caught out here long after the sun would go down, with no lighting to see my way as I was planning on picking up those supplies at this next aid station.
I saw a man at the top of the climb and he asked me if I was okay, I told him that I had injured my back and that I am ok to make it to the next aid station as it was only a couple of miles away. Those next three miles took me about 1 hour and 45 minutes to complete. I had not been passed by anyone as I felt completely alone in the wilds of Pennsylvania, not knowing how injured I was and not knowing if I would eventually make it to safety.
The downhill descent was brutal. I clutched my back in pain as I inched down the hill. Every little mis-step was causing the sensation to me that my back muscles were in fact ripping. It was excruciating.
About 1 kilometer from the flat run into the aid station I was passed by one runner, then another and another, all checking on me and asking if I was okay. I had told them that I was not but I had enough in me to get to the aid station. I now began to walk as fast as I could hitting 12-15 minute mile pace, as I swung my arms to generate as much speed as I could.
As I came into the aid station, it was such a relief to see everyone and meet my dad and Ashlee there. I checked in with the medical team and told the race staff that I was dropping. There was no way I could climb or descend anymore and still about 8k + of elevation gain and 7k of elevation descent remained in the last 37 miles. Luckily the aid station I finished at was a bar and restaurant, so we grabbed a bite to eat and just go over what a wild day it was.
This race in so many ways is tough. I had started to conquer my inner demons of not being a strong enough runner to race such a technical and long course for myself. I was well on my way until I lost my concentration, got a little arrogant and I faced the price. As we drove back to our hotel from the race site, it was incredible to see the mini-mountains I had run up and down all day long. When you are in the moment, you just go for it, but I was really pleased with how I performed regardless of my mishap. I had strained my back really bad and pinched a nerve in my back which I felt the repercussions of this accident up until December. It was a long recovery process.
Eastern States is an incredible event. The volunteers and people that surround this event are some of the best I have ever met and am so thankful for this experience. I do not think I will be back to race Eastern States as it is just not my type of running. The amount of uneven creek trail was too much for me and that was one of the main sections at the Hyner View Challenge that I did not enjoy and this race has about 12 times that amount.
The environments you get to run through are truly a gem and I will say with the creekbeds aside, the course is RAW and MAJESTIC. This is Pennsylvania but I imagined running in France, Italy, Switzerland, Florida, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and so many more places.
Wesley Atkinson ran an insane race to finish in a new course record of 18:23. This guy averaged 10 minute miles on this course which is NUTS! That means he was running in the 8 minute mile range all day if you factor in the ascents. This is a record that is going to be tough to beat.
My running compadre from the race, Andy from New Hampshire finished 2nd in 20 hours and 50 minutes which was an incredible run for him and I am excited to see what he puts together in ultras in the future.
Thank you everyone who stuck around for this read. Thank you to my wife as my perfect crew chief who made sure I was ready to go before the race and during through each check point. You continuous love and support is the best fuel I could ever ask for.
Thank you to my sponsors: 361 Degrees USA, Nathan, Janji, Mountainpeak Fitness/Red Newt Racing, Fits Socks, Boom Nutrition, Dion Snowshoes and newly minted Coros Global for the best GPS watches around. With 25 hour + batter life and consistent GPS readings, this brand is really incredible.