Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Oil Creek 100 Race Report


As I lay on my back staring at the roof of my wife’s mini-van at 12:30 the night before the Oil Creek 100, my mind is racing. In a few short hours I will start my first 100 mile foot race and I’m scared. This little ditty from Lao-tzu pops into my mind: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The true-ism gives me absolutely NO comfort. In fact, it makes me feel worse. Lao-tzu could not have been an ultra runner. Ultra runners know the first step is also probably the easiest. I struggle to get my mind to calm. I check my drop bags again. Did I pack enough layers? Do I have enough food? Crap, I didn’t bring long running pants! Hope I ran enough hills in my training…too late to worry about that. For an instant it seems I won the battle as I drift off and then, as if on cue, my cell phone alarm clock goes off. 3:30AM. Time to get rolling.

After the usual breakfast of two cups of coffee and two bagels with PB, I text Amy at 4:00 a.m. to bring up some long running pants when she comes to spectate. I get dressed and assemble with the rest of the racers in the Titusville middle school for final instructions. Minutes later we’re standing in the school yard. I can’t hear anything over the drone of pre-race conversations. I see the RD Tom J raise the air horn above his head. “Here we go,” I think. At 5:00 a.m. sharp the horn blasts, a shout goes up and we’re off on the second annual Oil Creek 100.

The Oil Creek 100 (OC100 to ultra geeks) takes place in Oil Creek state park in western Pennsylvania. The race consists of three 50k laps (31.1mi) and a 7.7 mile ‘bonus’ lap that rounds the total distance out to 100.6 miles. Each lap takes runners up and down 5000+ vertical feet along fairly technical single track for a total of just over 17,000 vertical feet by race end. Three races take place on the course at the same time (a 50k and 100k) and are staggered by an hour to space runners out along the course. The layout of the course is a logistical dream. A drop bag at mid-lap at the Petroleum Center aid station (PC) gives you access to all you may need and the common point at the lap start gives you access to your car. That means that at the end each lap you are also tempted to drop out (seeing your car and the warm building with hot showers) so you have to be prepared mentally for that temptation as well.

This being my first 100 mile race my plan was to strictly monitor my hear rate (HR) and keep it under 140 beats per minute (BPM) for at least the first two thirds of the race. Having used this strategy at LH78 and The Ring earlier this year, I felt confident that this would leave me plenty of leg for the later part of the race. I look down at my watch and as we stride off the starting line and see my heart rate is over 110 BPM and I’m standing still! To say I’m nervous is a vast understatement…

As we cruise along the asphalt bike path that connects the trail loop to the middle school and race HQ my heart rate slows and I hook up with Jim H and Bill L. We trot along and their easy chit chat relaxes me. Jim and I settle into a nice pace and we yo-yo thru the pre-dawn and early morning hours. Jim and I ran The Ring together in September and spent 19 hours on the trail together yet we have no problem finding conversation topics and general wise cracking in the pre-dawn chill to pass the time and warm our spirts.

Most of the first lap is very uneventful. The trail is in great shape and is dry. Hear rates are low and the overnight wind that dried the course has died down. But our pace is much faster than I had planned. This is bad because my wife, daughter, niece and in-laws were planning on seeing me at a couple of points on the course and I had estimated my arrival times on a more conservative pace. Jim and I overshoot my time at the family meeting point by an hour. I feel bad but I’m not going to wait for them so we shuffle on.

At the 50k point we shed layers and gobble down some food. I’m wearing my new Dirty Girls shoe gaiters so I skip my planned sock change and head back out on our second loop. Back on the trail the traffic of all the other runners has broken the trail in nicely. All the dry crunchy leaves that had obscured the rocks and roots in the first loop are ground into a nice mulch. Jim and I continue to roll along swapping pacing responsibilities and chatting. Somewhere very early in the second loop Jim Nelson, who is running the 100k, blows our doors off as he flies by. I met Jim at a road race last winter and shared trail with him over the summer on a training run at the park. We cheer him on as he dashes out of site. He is running strong and will eventually go on to win the race by a landslide.

We emerge from the woods at the mid-point of the second lap (about 45mi) still way ahead of schedule and we again miss Amy and the family at a scheduled rendezvous point. I’m kinda bummed as we leave the aid station, not for myself, but for them. I know that they’ll will feel bad not getting to see me. But it’s an ultra and anything will happen, even faster than anticipated running.

In the second half of lap two we start to catch the slower 50k hikers. One of the really cool features this race (which has many cool features) are the really gracious cut-off times for the 50k and 100k races. This means that hikers can complete the distances within the time limits which is a real rarity in the sport. I see people I’ve met at the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge and road races and say hey as we pass by. At the aid station at 53 miles my stomach is rumbling and empty. Having eaten very little solid food since the start my belly is craving a meal so we stop for 10 minutes and enjoy a cup of ramen noodle soup. I probably haven’t eaten ramen noodle since I as a single guy but I loved it then and let me tell you, ramen noodle after 10 hours of trail racing tastes like HEAVEN! We continue clipping along at a good pace and finish our second lap at 5:10PM and still have a couple of hours of daylight to start our third and final lap.

Leaving the middle school for the last 50k big loop Jim and I tried to do some math on finishing times. We convinced ourselves that if we ran a 7:30 50k and had 2 hours left for the 7.8 mile going home loop we’d finish with a 21: something run. I had said before the race that I’d be satisfied with any time starting in 22 or less, but now my mind was turning. I didn’t say it out loud but I was trying to work if it was possible to go under 21 hours. I gave up trying to do the math after a few minutes of mental struggling and just decided to run as much as I could.

As we closed in on the first aid station at about the quarter point of last lap we start to catch the 100k hikers. We catch a pair of women, one older than the other, and as Jim and I pass, the senior of the duo makes a very sassy comment to her hiking partner about “getting a good look at those run’n B-hinds.” Jim and I find this very humorous. We made it to the aid station at the 70 mile point just before sunset which was a real boon and a lift for our spirits. We stopped for more ramen, pizza and Jim gave me a Starbucks espresso shot which I diluted with water and mixed with some malto. As we assaulted the big climb right after the AS we pulled out our lighting and got set for 30 miles of night running.

The great thing about a lap course is that you know exactly what is coming and on the last lap you know you don’t have to face that last climb or big decent again (till next year anyway…) so it really lifts your spirit to pass major course marks.

The sun was set we worked our way along the trail and started to cut the throttle loose. Jim made a comment at some point that if at any point after 60 miles of racing you feel you can run, you should go for it because you don’t know if you’ll be able to later. Thinking about that recommendation I set my mind to running as much as I could when I was leading.

It wasn’t long till we were on the long downhill past the Beningholf farm oil derrick replicas and I started to feel kinda lousy. I immediately recognized I was starting to bonk. I knew I needed to eat but all I had were gels. My stomach had felt so good all day and I didn’t want to ruin it all now with the nausea that can accompany gels on an empty stomach. We only had a couple of miles to the into the Petroleum Center aid station so I downed a few Hersey mini-candy bars, chugged the rest of espresso mix and held on for dear life. We came out of the woods and headed down the dirt road that connects the trail to the aid station. As we ran the road section I closed my eyes for a while and trying to rest for the big push ahead.

Coming into the AS I was definitely at the low ebb of the race mentally. I walked into the station at the 76 mile point and someone said, “Hey Cam, how you doing?” I just stared at them blankly. “Cam, its Bob Fargo. You ok?” I then replied, “Hey Bob, I’m alright.” I’ve run with Bob several times, yet at this point in run, I don’t even recognize him. I remember placing both hands on a picnic table to stabilize myself and thinking, “don’t pass out, if you fall down they’ll make you stay here or maybe make you drop.” I sat down and tried to eat a cup of ramen noodle. I asked for my drop bag. As I pulled it open I saw the pants I had texted Amy to bring down. She had left them for me. Atop them was a note in little kid hand writing and a picture of a sad face. There was a note from Maddie and then one from Claire each stating in their own way how they were sorry that they missed seeing me and an “I love you!” and Amy had written a note on the other side. My throat got thick and my eyes swelled up. I folded the note and put it in the breast pocket of my vest. “Fuel for the fires,” Bob said. That note was what I needed. Eight or more hours ago they had been there and felt bad they had missed me. They had no idea then how much I needed their support now and they delivered far more help to me than they could have 30 miles ago when I was on top of the mountain mentally.

I felt my energy rebound and I downed chow. As we left I turned to Bob and pointed up to the top of the ridge we’d be climbing next and told him that somewhere up there I’d break new ground. I’ve never covered more than 77 miles in one go and I was about to break another threshold. We soldiered up the climb and started into the really runable section of trail near the cross country ski trails on the south east corner of the course. Somewhere in this section I took the lead and decided there was no reason to hold back anything at this point. This was what we had conserved our energy for and now was the time to cash in our chips. I remember Jim saying from behind me, “We’re at the 85 mile mark folks and Cam Baker is RUNNING the up-hills!”

We completed the third loop and now we only had the final 7.8 mile going home loop. We had completed the third loop faster than we had planned. As we jogged the bike path I asked Jim if he thought we could break 21 hours. We needed to run 1:45 for the last loop to do it and Jim was skeptical; I pointed out that our average pace from the last loop was fast enough to make it. We still weren’t sure but I must have convinced him to go for it because when I asked if he wanted to walk some (the asphalt section was the toughest part to run at this point) he said no and that we should run.

That was what I needed. I took the lead and had no intention of letting up. I had felt like I had relied on Jim a lot during the day and now I felt I could contribute to our run. I pushed the pace as hard as I could and looked over my shoulder every now and then to make sure Jim was close. We crossed Oil Creek on the swinging bridge and assaulted the last major climb of the run. I was very glad that we didn’t have to face this climb in the light. Being in the dark meant you didn’t know how many switch backs to you had to traverse to complete the climb. All we had to concentrate on was the next step. As the climb topped out we attacked the downhill. I started to gap Jim and I felt bad about it. I had no idea if we were running fast enough and I was scared to look at my watch. I rounded a switch back and yelled to Jim to catch me. He yelled back to just run.

I emerged from the woods onto the bike path with just 1.25 miles to go and opened up the pace. My stride lengthened and my breathing quickened. It felt so good to run full out at this point. Turning the corner, I could see the finish line but not the clock. “Would I make it?” was all I could think. Running under the banner I squinted at the clock and focused hard: 20:40:15. What does that mean? Did I make it? I tried to focus. Yeah, under 21…we made it. I walked back along the road to cheer for Jim as he finished. Jim came through a couple of minutes later. We congratulated each other. Jim’s 100 mile PR was set on this course a year ago at the inaugural OC100 and was 22:59:29 and he had just decimated that mark.

After the run I took the best shower of my life and got a bit to eat and crashed in the car for a few hours. After some breakfast I found a seat at the finish line and got to watch a bunch of other finishers. What an experience. The consensus from all is that the Oil Creek Ultras are expertly managed races on a gorgeous trail hosted by a quintessential small town community who pull together to put out their best for total strangers. My gratitude to everyone associated with this event is immeasurable. Thank you Titusville!! Thank you!!!

Hello World

I thought my first post should try to explain what this is and why I’m doing it. To answer these of questions I’ve formulated the little piece below in an FAQ style so I stay on topic and don’t ramble. I hope my stories make you laugh, make you think, make you appreciate the wild outdoors that I love. Maybe you’ll find inspiration. Maybe you’ll scratch your head. But most of all I want those who read this blog to always remember one thing: there is nothing physiologically special about most ultra runners. We all fall on a bell curve like everyone else. And as such, anyone, absolutely anyone, who has the desire can participate in these events.

What am I writing about? This blog will be about the ultra-endurance activities I participate in. I’m mostly a runner so most of it will be about ultra running. I will try very hard to write in a non-technical, non-insider lingo and in a “Guideposts” style that can be enjoyed by people not associated with the ultra endurance community (aka, the other 99.9% of the population).

Why am I writing? Ultra-running is the most self-centered thing I do. I usually run alone, spending hours in the woods with just my thoughts. I try not to participate in a “selfish” manner though: I get up early to run so I get home early to play; I train before work when no one us up; In short, I generally try not to miss too much family time. But the fact remains that, like most ultra-runners, my family makes many sacrifices but rarely gets to experience race day (ie, what we’re working for). So I try to write down my experience for my wife and my close family so that they can create a mental picture of what their sacrifice has allowed me to do. I also hope that some day my daughter and her children will read my ramblings and get a sense of who I was then and why I did what I did.

Why blog? Much to my surprise, there have been many close friends and extended family members who have expressed an interest in reading the reports I’ve written. My wife and family have forwarded my messages to others who where interested. In turn people have asked to be included on the distribution and It’s gotten hard to keep track of all the people who want to be copied on the email. So the blog is a central repository for these writings. Additionally, there are occasions when it would be nice to post a picture and a blog format is good for that.

Don’t I shirk social media? It is true that in general I have scorned the current state of social media and the blogosphere. My distaste is more focused on the narcissistic drivel posted on many personal “me-pages” and the un-self-critical socio/politico propaganda on many opinion blogs. The fact is I read several blogs religiously because I enjoy the author’s story telling approach and the overall tale they are telling.

Will this be a daily journal? Absolutely, unequivocally, no. I will post very infrequently on events that are interesting and memorable and for which I think a reader would be interested. Frankly, I just don’t have that much to say and so I only expect to post three or four times a year. If you want to read a journal style blog, there are lots of good ones out there and I’ll eventually post some links on this page to the blogs I read regularly.

When will I post? Since I will not post frequently, I will maintain a calendar in the margin of the blog showing what major events I have upcoming. I will not allow much time to pass after an event before I post mostly because my brain will dump the good stuff too quickly. I have to get it down on paper, or screen in this case, pretty quickly. Many runners (me included) break the calendar year into two “seasons” and have two top priority races. I also really enjoy the FA-style events and will probably do more of these than races in the coming years.

What’s the deal with blog name? About a year ago my daughter started into the Indian Princess program through the Y. The program is essentially a low-commitment character-building program similar to the Girl Scouts but with a father/daughter focus. One of the traditions of the Native American-themed IP program is the adoption of a pseudonym for the dad which is picked by the daughter and used at the campouts. My wife and daughter wanted to incorporate running in my nick-name so they tried different names out on me while we rode in the car one day last fall: “Running Deer,” no. “Running Wolf,” no. “Running Cheetah.” “Hardly,” I say, “more like Running Turkey.” We all bust out laughing and the name stuck.

Why ultra running? Why do you do this? What’s the point? Guess I’m still working on this one. When I get good answer, I’ll post on it so keep reading.