Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Photo Cred: Mike McNeil

Unforgiving, historic, gnarly. Do you have what it takes?

The Oil Creek 100 website asks this very question. In 2017 I didn’t truly answer the question.  A sprained ankle one week before the race followed by re-spraining it just short of mile 54 had me riding the bail bus back to race HQ.  In 2018 I am happy to say I had what it takes by a narrow margin.

Was the race unforgiving?

Unseasonably high temperatures around 80 degrees and overnight lows in the 60s with dense fog and thunderstorms and long arduous ascents up the hills of Oil Creek State Park with names like Cemetery Hill, Rockefeller’s Revenge, Ray Gerard’s Neverending Hill, and the Hill of Truth. Yeah, it was definitely unforgiving.

Was the race historic?

Runners travelled through what were once oil boom towns in the 1860s. Signs placed along the course told the history of the areas. It was informative and allowed my mind to wander thinking of how different this new growth forest was not so long ago. The course was dotted with relics of the oil boom; machinery and structures. And the last 7.7 mile “Going Home Loop” for the 100 milers passed the site of the Boughton Acid Works, a scar in the land where nothing grows, eventually leading us across a suspension bridge following the path workers would take home from the Works. Yes, it was historic…and epic.

Was the course gnarly?

Roots and rocks were abundant throughout the course of the Gerard Hiking Trail, though there certainly are some very nice runnable stretches. Even the most pleasant stretches became tough after the storms had blasted the area. Weather aside it is definitely a gnarly and beautiful course.

Saturday 5:00 A.M. – Race Start

Amassed together outside the Titusville Middle School we waited for Tom Jennings, the Race Director, to give the word.  There was no big count down, no fanfare, just that electric charge of anticipation from the 180 or so people awaiting what would be the start of 20-32 hours of running. A simple “Go!” and we were off running the road and paved bicycle path leading to the singletrack of the Gerard Hiking Trail.

Coming onto the singletrack the first mile or two isn’t very runnable. There are a lot of rocks and some mud, which would get worse later. The slow start is a big benefit for a guy like me who sometimes has trouble keeping an appropriate pace through the feel good of the early miles.  

Coming to the first water stop at the split for the 100 miler “Going Home” loop I topped my bottles, though I knew it was unnecessary. Still, it was humid out and a little extra water isn’t a bad idea.   Continuing on through darkness the trail became more runnable. The cool air of morning felt good and all the more so since I was unencumbered by a pack.  I planned to run the first 62 miles with handhelds and then pickup my Orange Mud V2 hydration vest and Black Diamond FLZ carbon poles for the remainder of the run.

Descending towards the stream that drifts past AS#1 I enjoyed the feel of gravity pulling me along effortlessly. Through the trees twinkling lights could be seen. Someone excitedly exclaimed, “The Aid Station!” I said nothing, knowing we were close, but not there yet.  On approach the Alfred’s Bent Nail bridge came into view illuminated by strands of colorful lights. A beautiful indicator that the Aid Station was indeed close.  This year’s theme was Birthdays…or was it Astrology? Lit up posterboard signs  were dotted along the trail, each with it’s own zodiac sign and all the race participants whose birthdays fall to that sign listed underneath.  I noticed a few familiar names in passing, but didn’t stop.  This race was not for taking pictures. For me, this was digging in deep and losing myself to the run.

Like all Aid Stations at Oil Creek the first was fully stocked with all the standard fare; water, various snack foods, and then some real food options. Also, this year Hammer Nutrition was a sponsor which I was doubly glad of. This meant if I ran short of anything I would have it available on course, a convenience I took advantage of.  The volunteers topped my bottles with water and Heed and I grabbed a mini bagel with cream cheese. 

Leaving the AS #1 runner are immediately faced with the climb up Switchback Mountain.  I nibbled the bagel a little at a time along the climb instead of eating it all and climbing with all the blood in my stomach instead of legs.  A lesson I have been slow to learn, but I get there eventually! A short flat area at the top gave reprieve and soon I was dropping down switchbacks that let out on a long , gentle descent. It was a very nice runnable stretch and I enjoyed letting my legs stretch out as I picked up some speed, the cool morning air rolling over my body.

That stretch didn’t  last nearly long enough. I soon found myself slowly and steadily climbing Ray Gerard’s Neverending Hill. The name says it all. It isn’t terribly steep, but it lives up to that name. 

The Oil Creek course is like this. Big slow arduous climbs (almost 18,000 feet of gain on the course. Roughly the same as Western States 100!!) often followed by very nice gentle runnable flats and descents. The first half of the loop from Titusville Middle School to Petroleum Center is about 14 miles and is, in my opinion, the harder trail.  The return path of 17 miles has some killer climbs, but is mostly runnable and relatively fast. 

By the time I reached Petroleum Center the sun had been up for a while and I was happy to lose the headlamp for the next 31 miles. Only 14 miles in and I already was feeling fatigued. Quickly putting negative thoughts out of my head I grabbed some food and my drop bag while the volunteers filled my bottles. Scott was here crewing for Meg and he had his customary kid at Christmas look. He has this  look whenever I see him at an ultra.  The man loves this stuff and that I can relate to well.

Leaving AS#2, Petroleum Center, Mike McNeil was taking pictures.  We briefly chatted in passing then the ascent began up Heisman Trophy Hill. The climb wasn’t so bad and I looked forward to the long easy stretch ahead; 3-4 miles of gradual descents, flats, and a few small climbs. Yes, I was starting to feel better, but it is hard not to feel good running an easy gentle downhill.

Over this section I would get to see some friends. Both Kim A. and Amy N. would fly by me looking fresh. Both would go on to impressive finishes in the 100k. Kim was running her first 100k and knocked it out of the park winning the women’s race and coming in 3rd overall less than 30 minutes from the first finisher. Amy crushes trail like nobody’s business and finished strong in 8th place overall. I couldn’t  be prouder or more in awe of these badass women I am fortunate to call friends. 

There was just one big hill in my way on the quest for the next aid station, Ida Tarbell’s Wrath. Ida Tarbell was a journalist who wrote an expose on Standard Oil in 1904 entitled The History of the Standard Oil Company. Tarbell’s  book is largely credited with hastening the breakup of the monopoly which ultimately disbanded in 1911.

Just like Ida Tarbell broke up the trust her namesake hill broke up the easy miles and gave one nice climb before the rocky descent to the Miller Farm aid station. Running easily , yet carefully through the rocky terrain I tried to read the messages left for us by the race volunteers. All along this section of the course painted rocks could be found with inspiring or just plain funny messages. 

Buckle! Hill of Truth! Dream OC100! You rock! 50k! 100k! 100 miles! and many other colorful messages adorned the path and made a great little keepsake of the race.  Not to mention they were messages one could physically grasp, carry, and when I needed, look at as the long day turned into the long night.

Last year I took home a rock that read Do Your Best. An appropriate message for a race that ended in this very spot with a twisted ankle at mile 54. I had done my best at that time. This time my best would have a better outcome.

Coming in to the Miller Farm aid station I was happy to see Mark Frey volunteering. Melanie was there too. She shoudl’ve been out there with us all, but an injury had kept her from running, but not from the race.  As my bottles were refilled I perused the offerings.  I was feeling rough, too rough for this early in the race, but I vowed not to get in my head. Instead the protocol was to simply focus on what I needed to get to the next aid station. Nothing more.  So I drank extra fluids and took Endurolytes caps along with some extras for the next 7 miles back to Titusville Middle School. 

Back on trail slogging up Cemetery Hill Mike Meyers and I were together for much of the climb. After a short descent it was right back up Rockefeller’s Revenge, a climb with 300 feet or more of gain. From here it would be nothing but easy rolling enjoyable trail.

Photo by David Schmude

Departing the Gerard Hiking Trail and turning left we followed the loop around the Drake Well Museum.  Here I caught up with Adam. We would run the remainder of the loop in together. While the Well loop was one of my least favorite sections of the course I found enjoyment in the historical aspects of the grounds and relished in the easy terrain. If I can offer one bit of advice for ultra running it is this:

Take maximum advantage of every easy section. Even if it is nothing more than a quick shuffle don’t waste the easy terrain by walking it. A minute saved at mile 30 could very well be the minute that gets you past the cutoff at mile 92. 

From here it was physically easy, mentally anguishing paved bicycle trail back to race HQ. As I came in my good friend and fellow trail fiend 
Alyssa led me through the aid station expediting gathering food and needed supplies. Then I was led to a chair under the canopy of my Pittsburgh friends.  I rifled through the drop bag and ate some food. It was good to sit. Really good. I had been spending a lot of time in aid stations and this trend would continue until nightfall.

In hindsight I think the extended stops were necessary. I had been struggling since mile 10 and had been successful in putting that very thought out of my mind when it cropped up. These thoughts lend weight to the doubts that can plague the mind and stifle the body when set against an enormous task. A positive mindset and immediate presence are perhaps the greatest assets in ultrarunning and in all of life’s pursuits.  

Loop 2 : Miles 31 – 62

I was sent packing from my cozy little spot. Now in fresh clothes and with my beloved Lunas traded in for Merrell barefoots I was as ready as I could be.  Alyssa mentioned something about being ready when I made it back and I vowed to send her a message when I hit the ridge above the Miller Farm Aid Station. She would pace me through the long night.

The trail was getting a bit sloppy from the foot traffic. Areas with only a little mud in the morning had devolved, but were still mostly in good shape. The mud was what had prompted me to swap my huaraches for shoes.
Also, I had chosen to take my Black Diamond carbon FLZ poles starting at mile 31 instead of waiting until mile 62. These would both be key decisions that allowed me to complete the race.  

Hitting the singletrack Adam had caught up to me and we ran with new friends Bambi and Akira. The conversation and laughter carried us quickly to AS #1. I was feeling awfully ragged again coming in to the Aid Station.  I grabbed some food and talked with Josh, who was sitting in a chair. After he headed back on trail I promptly took his seat.  Eventually I mustered the energy to get up and get fluids and foods in me. It was back on the trail.  It was coming up on the hottest part of the day and I knew it was having an effect on me. My best plan was to keep moving no matter the pace and hopefully pick it up a little after the sun went down.

It was an arduous haul to Petroleum Center and my memories are limited at best. I had caught Josh and we ran together for a little. He looked good, but said he had stopped sweating a hours ago, a serious concern.

Coming in to Petroleum Center Cam and Mark led me to a chair and attended to my immediate needs.  Mark had my bottles filled and Cam probed me with questions to see what I needed. As I ran through the list in my head of how I felt and what my fluid and electrolyte intake was I decided that calorie deficit was likely my problem. “What do you want?’, Cam asked.  I couldn’t think. I already had a grilled cheese in my hand. He began rattling off items..ramen..Yes! I’ll take that. But then he said potatoes with ketchup. That was it. That was what I wanted.

Josh came in and grabbed a seat next to me. Erin and the guys helped him with whatever he needed as I happily devoured a full bowl of taters and ketchup.  It was time to continue. Otehrwise I’d take a nap and be done. I took it slow up Heisman Trophy hill letting the food settle and looking forward to the easy stretch ahead.  Despite a full stomach the terrain agreed with me. I slowly and steadily plodded along and began feeling better than I had all day! That food really revitalized my game.  

Coming in to the pine forest the quickly setting sun was obscured by the canopy of the forest and I had to turn my headlamp on. I noted that it was darker than it had been the previous year at this point. In other words I was slower. Still I was hours ahead of any cutoff and comfortably moving half way into the race. Approaching the Cow Run shelter, where the Boy Scouts were camped, it began raining. Not just rain. It was pouring, lightning crashing down. As I passed the Scouts advised that runners joined them under a canopy until the storm passed. I obliged more from a sense of not wanting to refuse their hospitality than from concern about my safety running in the storm.  One of the Scouts showed me the satellite image from his phone.  It was a bright red mess all over. 

After 5 minutes or so the rain lightened up a little and I decided it was time to move. Thanking the young men I headed back onto the trail.  My core temperature had cooled considerably from the potent combination of cold rain and the minutes of rest.  The storm was a blessing in disguise.   The trail conditions deteriorated heavily after the rain though and I was doubly glad I had changed into shoes. 

I slogged out the return to Miller Farm AS and again spent too much time here.  I grabbed a seat and had some noodles and broth, took extra salt, and fluids, and looking around saw the faces of those who had decided to drop.  My race had finished here last year, but this year I was uninjured and I’d  be damned if I was letting anything keep me from completing it this time. A few times earlier in the day as I suffered I considered dropping. Each time I remembered Alyssa had come all this to help me finish this and there was no way I’d let her waste the trip.

Melanie was finishing her shift volunteering at Miller Farm AS. I got a hug and thanked her for her help and rallied myself to get back to Alyssa, but not before sitting for a bit and getting more food in me.

It was 8:15 P.M. as I crested Cemetery Hill.  I sent out a message to Alyssa noting my location and continued on splashing through the mud and puddles. Visibility was low from wet eyeglasses and the dense fog starting to settle on the hills of Oil Creek State Park. I kept my eyes on the ground as best I could and held an easy pace.

When I came into Titusville Middle School there were few people about. The Pittsburgh crew had all headed off in search of cover from the rain. Alyssa made sure I had everything I needed and that I had food and drink before we headed off for our overnight adventure.

Loop 3 : Miles 62 – 93

We were off!  Alyssa the Trail Turkey and I had logged untold miles and had many an adventure before. I had often said she would be the perfect pacer for me.  A mix of frivolity and, when necessary, deadly seriousness, Alyssa is a master organizer and planner.  Her skills, along with her being my long lost trail sister, no doubt played a large role in getting me across that finish line.

The night hours are the most trying for me. Hours of darkness made more difficult by the sheer number of miles already past and the considerable amount still to be traversed.  It is easy to get inside your own head at these times. I had no time to get in my head between Turkey and Goat conversation and foolishness.  

The trail had deteriorated further since the storm during my second loop. Areas that were comfortably runnable had become slippery messes. Still we moved ahead at a reasonable, if not impressive, pace.

The first two sections from the Middle School to AS#1 and then on to Petroleum Center are a bit of a blur. I recall Alyssa talking about Alfred’s Bent Nail Bridge as we approached and then coming in to the Aid Station.  I was thinking Alyssa should eat more. Then I realized she had run 7 miles so far. She wouldn’t be in any need of food anytime soon. Each climb from here out would be bolstered by the thought that this would be the last time I faced these particular hills (at least this year). 

Up Switchback mountain….for the last time.

Up Ray Gerard’s Neverending Hill…for the last time. 

By mile 60 it is fair to say no one wants to keep running for another 10 or more hours. This is where the real race starts and this is when having a great pacer and crew supporting can make the difference between a buckle and a DNF.

As we ran along a particularly easy section of trail I stopped in my tracks and turned to face Alyssa, a deadly serious expression on my face.  She asked if everything was ok and that is when I let a boisterous fart fly. I figured it best not to unleash that in her face as she followed me down the trail. We both laughed hard and that laughter carried my feet and mind a few more miles.  

Petroleum Center in the dark of night. The large groups of people hanging out, crewing, cheering for runners had long turned in, but not the volunteers. They diligently took care of us all and did it with a smile even though many had been up as long as the runners had. A volunteer called out the 30 minute warning. We had to be out of the Aid Station fast. There was still 25 miles ahead of me and cutoffs were looming close.  Grabbing the normal necessities…food, drink, and some more Hammer Endurolytes, Heed, etc I put my drop bag in the return area and we continued our trek into the dark, muddy hills of Oil Creek State Park.

I was carrying a ziplock of pierogies in my pocket. As I ate one the taste seemed off.  Almost soapy. I finished it thinking my system is pretty wrecked and it was probably fine. My stomach was in rough shape for a number of hours after that. Eventually, though , it passed. However a bathroom stop was necessary and there was a port o john by the trail along with some jugs of water. I stepped into the little blue box and it was not bigger on the inside. My eyes adjusted and horrified I turned around and left.

I think Alyssa asked if something was wrong.

Yes, something is wrong. The whole place was covered with poop. The floors were brown and slick.

Alyssa told me the obvious. It was mud. My brain thought shit and didn’t bother to re-evaluate. At this point I had been running, hiking, crawling for well over 24 hours. My mind wasn’t at it’s keenest, nor was my body. Business concluded it was back to the getting it done thing.

Ultrarunners do it all day and all night AND some of the next day

We hiked our way up Heisman Trophy Hill and hit the easy trails from here.  Occasionally I found myself with spurts of energy and would run what felt like breakneck paces digging in with my poles to assist in propulsion.

Off and on we faced storms passing through. The downpours were heavy and the trail had standing water in many spots.  I wasn’t trying to miss the water or mud. That would be a waste of energy. Instead I followed the easiest path for momentum. Running on snow, ice, or mud and confidence will likely save you more than excessive caution.

Light was filtering back into the sky as we faced Ida Tarbell’s Wrath. As we ran the descent towards Miller Farm AS I let my legs unspool and gravity pulled me fast down a muddy descent. At the bottom I lost traction and supermanned across the ground.

It felt so good to lay down!

I was thoroughly covered in mud on the left side of my body. The fall was comfortable. No impact, no soreness, it was like diving onto a Slip and Slide. Alyssa asked if I was ok and I replied affirmatively.  Just 50 yards more and we were on the gravel road to the AS. 

We were dangerously close to cutoffs and Alyssa was on point making sure I was in and out of Aid Stations efficiently. As we approached the Miller Farm AS I said I wanted to be in and out in under 5 minutes.  We were out in 4. Another runner mistakenly grabbed my poles and was leaving the Aid Station, but it did not escape Alyssa’s watch.  She yelled, “THOSE ARE MY RUNNER’S POLES!” He apologized and grabbed his set. We weren’t too far behind him in leaving. The sun was up and I tried to hike harder and run more. We were banking a little time against the cutoffs.   

Cemetery Hill…for the last time.

Prior to race day Alyssa asked me what worked for me. Should she be encouraging or put on the Drill Sergeant persona? I told her that the yelling approach usually doesn’t work for me. Usually if I’m stopping It’s because I missed something…getting enough calories, enough fluids, electrolytes or a combination of all of the above. Making sure I was eating and drinking is definitely a priority for anyone pacing me. 

After Cemetery Hill I stopped for a moment trying to let my heart rate settle before hitting Rockefeller’s Revenge.  Alyssa pulled the Drill Sergeant out effectively here and said I had to keep moving forward. Many times throughout the night she repeated the phrase “slow is still a speed.”  Slow I went, but we were also moving closer to our goal.

Rockefeller’s Revenge….for the last time.

The sun was up, visibility improving as the fog burned off. We ran more, walked less. 

The Drake Well Loop…for the last time. 

Turkey after running/babysitting all night

I told Alyssa she could wait on the bridge while I ran the Drake Well loop if she wanted.  She made it crystal clear she was running the rest of the course in with me.  As we ran the bike path in Adam was on his way out for the Coming Home Loop with Cam. 

Alyssa ran me in to the Middle School. Kim was there too. Everyone made sure I grabbed everything I needed quickly. I was only 10 minutes or so ahead of the cutoff! Someone asked if I could do it.  Hell yes I can do it! I was ready to smash out the last 7.7 miles. Alyssa literally chased me out of the Aid Station which got me running and laughing again. It was time to dig in. I had a goal to shave as much time as possible off this last loop. I was determined and felt new vigor with the thoughts of friends and the sun rising higher in the sky. 

The Going Home Loop

Walking was only in absolute necessity or for hill climbs.  I was mentally engaged and passed a few runners on the bike path. I tried my best to keep runner’s ahead of me in view and to close the gap.  How many people could I pass in the last 7.7 miles? The game was afoot!

I was passed by a runner prior to the split for the Going Home loop and vowed to not let that happen again. I dug in on the flats and let my legs fly on the downhills. Passing the Boughton Acid works site I found myself holding my breath. The stench cut me. I could feel the death around me. Nothing grows there, the land is spoiled for the foreseeable future.

Back when the Works was in operation it was common practice to dump waste materials in the “tar ditch”, a small drainage channel outletting into Oil Creek. Fortunately the Creek was not affected for long. Today there is great fishing to be had in the area. 

The Acid Works was in operation from 1890 to 1916 and produced sulfuric acid, which was used to clarify kerosene. Back in those days 12 families lived in Boughton. There was a rail station and a schoolhouse. Employees of the Acid Works worked 12 hour shifts six days a week.  A hard life for certain. Harder than running 100 miles.

It was a short run to the suspension bridge. The Bridge was dedicated and opened for use in 1986 and has a span of 139 feet. I was excited as I passed over this piece of history. I knew on the other side of this span was the Hill of Truth, the last major climb in the Oil Creek 100.

I had been trading spots with a girl up to this point. As we began the climb she said she didn’t think she would make it in time for the cutoff. I told her to focus on my feet and just follow. We’d get there with time to spare. This hill was the last challenge and it was our current task to complete it with as much efficiency as we could muster.  At the top of the hill she was following just a short ways behind me. I yelled back “All easy running from here!” as I let my legs happily unwind. 

Coming off of the trail I was relieved to not run the Drake Well loop this time, instead following the course markings to the bridge.  It was time to dig in.  That last mile or so of gently ascending asphalt bike trail was grueling. I focused on running it as fast as I could sustain. Each footfall was searing. I was certain I’d have bleeding, blistered feet, but now was not the time to ease off. I had time to walk it in, but damn it I fought hard for the whole day and wasn’t going to stop now if I was capable of more.  Coming up the small rise to the street I walked for 20 feet or so recovering from the last effort and mustering up the will to run it in.  

Digging in I began picking up speed and had even surprised myself that I had that capability still. Rounding the last turn and seeing the finish line brought a smile to my face. After 31 hours 30 minutes and 28 seconds I was done. 

A huge thank you to RD Tom Jennings and the hundreds of incredible volunteers from both the local community and ultra running community. This is a top notch race. The support, the aid station eats, the course…it is all grand. The Oil Creek trail race has a distance to challenge you whether it be the 50k, 100k, or bearing the rawness of your body and soul for 100 miles.

It is unforgiving. Historic. Gnarly.

Do you have what it takes?