Saturday May 11, 2019

cover photo : Shannon Mick IG:

Josh and I rode up to Moraine State Park. The park is named for the meandering ridge we would spend many miles traversing. A moraine is a feature marking the southernmost advance of a glacier, where it drops the materials being pushed and carried along as it melts or retreats much like a bulldozer. Moraines are composed of mixed sediments; rock, silt, clay all jumbled together. Whatever was in the way of the glacier’s advance can end up in these low, rocky ridges. This particular moraine was a remnant of the Pre-Illinoian Ice Age about 1-2 million years ago. There would be no ice on the course today though temperatures would be nice and cool.

It was a little after 3 AM and I hoped Josh was more awake than I as he was the driver. After arriving at McDanel’s boat launch the normal race day stuff was taken care of ; I popped a couple Hammer anti-fatigue caps, placed the drop bag in the designated area, then bathrooms, packet pickup, bathrooms, top off bottles, bathrooms , sunrise pic, bathrooms. Okay, maybe a few less bathroom breaks than that.

Sunrise Splendor

Upon arriving I noticed my phone battery was only around 50%. Somehow I opened a podcast in my pocket and had the backlight on for most of the ride up. Upon acquiring signal I noticed my Garmin Fenix 3 battery was also only about half charged. This was particularly puzzling as I had charged it to full two days prior and turned it off. I knew the trail, I knew I had enough battery to get to swamp run at least, and I had my Fitbit which would be good enough to keep an eye should I falter and need to watch cutoffs. As for my phone, I wasn’t running with it so no issue there.

As everyone gathered for the pre-race briefing I ran over to the car and traded my hoody for two handhelds. It was a cool morning and I was glad to run in comfortable temps. Considerable amounts of rainfall all spring and again the day before the race meant mud and mud had me trading in my Luna sandals for Merrell Barefoots. The course was the muddiest I had ever seen it, particularly on the swamp run section.

Start to AS 1 : Mt. Union Road

Dave, one of the co-RDs, bellowed out “1 minute until start!”

I was calm despite no real training and just a couple runs around 20 miles in 2019 so far. No anxiety, not even race excitement. I was going for a long run and the feeling I had was gratitude. Gratitude simply for a long day running in the forest, something that has been missing from my life recently.

Due to some financial issues resultant of a hit and run accident by an uninsured driver back in October and some mistakes of my own I am very limited on races I can afford this year. Lucky for me Hammer Nutrition is a sponsor of the Glacier Ridge Trail Ultramarathon and secured me entry. Not only have they kept me running and recovering strong through an excellent line of endurance fuels and supplements they helped me get a few races on my calendar. Yes, the feeling I had at the start was gratitude. As the “Go!” was issued I started my Garmin and smiled as we set off into the cool morning air.

It’s a sort of magic, ultrarunning. Amidst all the beauty of nature there is a lot of suffering and that suffering is entered into by choice. I call it fuffer, fun suffer. We choose this knowingly. It is part of the ultra contract. I can test my body and maybe more than body I test my will. In exchange I can forget about daily life and the world. It is me sometimes running with friends sometimes alone with stops in these little villages of positivity we call Aid Stations. It is indescribable in many ways.

The start of the race follows some asphalt and gravel paths, part of the North Country Trail, before turning off onto single track around mile 1. Josh and I found ourselves running together before we hit the singletrack. It was just under 4 hilly miles to the first aid station (4.7 from the starting line), a fluids only stop at Mt. Union Road.

I had caught up to Josh before the singletrack and figured I’d try and keep up with him for a bit. Josh, a good friend and fellow Dirtbag Runner, had been running the distance game strong in the past year. He was a top finisher at the Conquer the Castle 100k, he paced me for over 40 miles of the Burning River 100, and was stacking up achievements. Coming off of a, thankfully, minor injury he was looking to test his recovery. Checking pace on the first mile we were under 9 minutes and moved with expedience up the first climbs.

My breathing was too hard for the start of a race of this duration. I knew I’d need to tone it down a bit on the hills, but I kept on at this comfortably hard pace. The cold air was a blessing. My hands were cold, which let me know my core temp was staying in a good zone. A cool core means extremities get less bloodflow. The body is protecting it’s major organs and as such it acted as an indicator, an engine overheat light. When my hands started warming up a bit I’d slow down or walk and let my temp come down a little.

On the way Josh and I chatted with a new friend, Nick. Nick, Josh, and I would spend a lot of time together on this long day.

It seemed like only a few minutes before we made our way to the Mt. Union AS. It was roughly an hour into the race and I was surprised and happy with the pace. I continued through without stopping as I had plenty of water still. I didn’t need two handhelds with the agreeable temperatures and my current pace.

AS 1 to AS 2 : Rt 528

The next 5.3 miles into Rt 528 clicked off nice. This stretch is a little hillier than the first 5, but when you are feeling good you are feeling good. My legs were rolling. I hiked the uphills and let my legs unspool on the downs. I love a good downhill! Gravity does all the work and all I need to focus on is keeping good form and foot placement. That aside it is all weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

Photo: Christina Montemurro

I was still feeling a bit chilly and was happy to keep that feeling as long as the weather permitted. When I hit that last 0.5 miles towards the next AS my legs were in love with the descent and I found myself quickly catching up to a group of 3 runners I’d see throughout the day. Two were seasoned in distance and one was working to complete his first 50 miler. Spoiler: He did it.

Coming in to the Aid Station Tim gave me a big high five. No time for either of us to chat. He was volunteering and I was running. I popped a couple Hammer BCAA Endurance Aminos, grabbed a pre-filled ziplock of Endurolytes Extremes (salt caps), and a few single servings of mango Fizz and stuffed them into my pockets. Checking my cell phone to shoot my wife a message I found that I had more than enough battery, but no signal. I hoped she wouldn’t worry. I typically send her a few updates throughout the day on these long events. Popping a grape Fizz into my Orange Mud handheld I stopped at the food table for a small piece of grilled cheese, and a little bacon. Ahhhh ultras. The all you can eat competition with some minor periods of running in between! Time to head out for the next 5 mile section…

AS 2 to AS 3 : Jennings Environmental Center

I was feeling good still and kept a nice pace through the beautiful hilly stretches of trail en route to the Jenning’s Environmental Education Center (JEEC). The JEEC is a 300 acre state park administered by DCNR with the primary focus of educating the public. It boasts the only protected prairie ecosystem in the state of Pennsylvania. Originally, the park was established to protect the liatris spicata, or Blazing Star, a prairie flower of the daisy family. It is also home to the endangered Massasauga rattlesnake and a variety of flora. For these obvious reasons our course would not enter the 20 acre prairie, but the Jennings AS stands at its threshold.

As always the volunteers were awesome! I had a cup of ramen, mostly noodles and a little broth and grazed at a few offerings before topping my bottle and popping another Fizz in. Back on trail a little over a quarter mile in I saw pink ribbon as I crossed a bridge. Runners ahead were moving across and up the next hill. I stopped. Pink means you are off course. Looking around I couldn’t see any other trail. Fortunately a volunteer was heading down the trail and I asked. He led me back about a tenth of a mile to a hard to see, yet clearly marked cut into the woods. Thanking him I headed in for what would be a bit over 1.5 miles through the forests of JEEC. While on my way a runner was coming from the opposite direction. He had a race bib on.

I asked, ” What race distance are you in?”



Am I going the wrong way?

“I think so, but you’ll be at the AS pretty soon”

A few other runners came from that direction and I started to doubt myself, but no. The path was clearly marked. Even were they going the wrong direction they would still cover the same miles. No big deal. As for the runners that missed this section entirely well…stuff happens sometimes and I am certain no malintent was behind the transgression.

I had not seen Josh and Nick for quite some time and wasn’t sure if they missed the turn also. They could be miles ahead or just behind me. I forged on. The miles started wearing on me a little after that stretch of uncertainty fueled by a bit of anxiety. Reviewing the splits I had dropped under the 11 min per mile mark for a few miles. A little too fast for the distance game on that terrain and it was starting to finally warm up. I would pay for that soon.

Just short of mile 22 on my GPS I rolled back in to the main AS at Rt. 528. Coming in Dave let up a big shout to me. I couldn’t help but smile. First stop was my drop bag. I decided to stick with handhelds, this time reverting back to 2. Grabbing a fresh ziplock of Endurolytes Extreme and again popping a Fizz in my bottle I topped off and ate the same as I did earlier in the day. A small piece of grilled cheese and, this time, a full piece of bacon. It was time for head out for the Swamp Run section.

AS 3 to AS 4 : Swamp Run

The Swamp Run leg is a 20 mile out and back from Rt. 528. The terrain is easier, but the heat and volume of miles lends added difficulty. This year there was considerable amounts of mud and I was glad I chose Merrell Barefoots for the race.

Josh, Nick, and I headed out ticking the miles off at a good pace. Roughly 5 miles out we stopped at the fluid station and topped bottles off. The next stretch would have a few a few climbs and descents following the fire road. Something was off for me. I was losing momentum. Josh and Nick were getting further and further away. I drank more and popped a couple extra Endurolytes caps, but it didn’t seem to help. I closed the gap on the first downhill, but eventually feel so far behind I could no longer see them. Thoughts of dropping at Swamp Run came into my mind. I tried dismissing them, but stopping sounded so good.

Thinking back to my drop at Hyner a few weeks previous I recalled how much better I felt after sitting a few minutes and eating a sandwich. I had tons of time here at Glacier. I had no good excuse to quit and every reason to work out what the problem was. Reaching the apex of the last hill before Swamp Run I knew I was close…maybe a mile or so to the Aid Station. It was all downhill and flat ahead, but I couldn’t move. Sitting down on a rock I tried to regain my composure. I sipped water and put my head down for a moment. Each runner that came by asked if I was ok and I answered in the affirmative. Just needed a break. I couldn’t sit here all day though. I needed to get to Swamp Run AS. Mustering the will I got back up and walk/ran the last bit in.

Coming in I announced my bib number to the volunteers and grabbed some food. I was about to sit down on the ground when a spectator offered me their chair. I was grateful and thanked them. Eating for a moment, content, and enjoying chair sweet chair, I spent a few minutes before getting myself together. It would only be a couple miles before I was back here. I took another drink and grabbed some chips for the road. Snacking my way out I felt some strength returning. That was the issue…calories. While I wasn’t making record speed I was moving well again. Josh and Nick came by on the return as I was outbound. They must have been over a mile ahead of me already.

Reaching the turnaround I tore a page from the book hanging from a candy cane pole. Usually a phone book hangs here and a page from it proves you went to the turnaround. This year, however, I laughed when I saw a Running for Dummies book. So appropriate. 50 miles….yeah we are the best kind of dummies. Leafing through for an amusing page I found the one I wanted , folded it up, and began the return. It was a faster return and when I got to the aid station I was sure to eat more before presenting the page to the volunteers.

“Can I keep this?”

Sure. We would just throw it out anyway.

Back on the trail again around 50k in and I was on the return.

AS 4 to AS 5 : Rt 528

As I started feeling better and better I picked up pace. A 14 minute mile, then a 13, finally a 10 minute mile. Then my Garmin died. No problem. I had loads of time, I was feeling better, and I run by feel, not by numbers on a watch. Four miles into the return on the long straightaway by the Duck Preserve I saw a familiar shirt in the distance. I was almost certain it was Josh ahead of a number of other runners. I dug in and ran hard stopping for brief walking breaks to recover along the way. As I passed runners I gave the customary compliments.

“Good Job”

“Looking good”

“Keep it up”

And they did likewise. What a wonderful community the trail and ultra world has! Within about 2 miles I closed the gap and finally caught up to Josh and Nick again. One problem. Now I had to poop. Fortunately we were almost to Rt 528 and I was not alone in this predicament.

Mile 40 Photo: S. Wallace

Coming into Rt 528 for the last time my friend Sarah was on the road crossing cheering. She had run the 50k and stuck around to cheer for people. Grade-A humans. I beelined and gave her a hug.

Dave Murray let up a shout and we chatted briefly. I thanked him for another excellent event and mentioned the great AS foods. I also mentioned what eating those foods meant. He let me know that he now felt our friendship hit a new level with a bit of good old TMI. Then it was off to that little blue box to take care of the most urgent of business relating to just that.

Feeling lighter now, a few of us 50 milers were grazing at the AS. I could have stayed there for the rest of the day. 40 miles in and a spread of incredible food and friends in front of me. Did I really need to run 10 more miles? Of course the answer is yes. Then Dave’s voice boomed out:


We scurried out like chastised children laughing.

AS 5 to AS 6 : Mt. Union Road

A hair over 5 hilly miles would take us to the next AS. These last 10 of the course are the most difficult. Plenty of unending hills for tired legs. Josh, Nick, and I carried on together. We were all moving slow and in the suffer and walked most of it. I let my legs roll out on the last descent of this section, around the pond, and finally came to Mt. Union Road. Unlike the morning , when this stop only had fluids, it now had some snack offerings. Pretzels, cookies, and a few other things were laid out. I drank 3 big cups of water. It was cool and clean and felt great. I had a cookie and a few handfuls of pretzels to eat while we sat on the ground for a moment readying mentally for the last push.

To the Finish

Hiking it out of the AS with only 4.7 miles left…it was a good place to be. I washed down the last handful of pretzels with a drink from my handheld. We didn’t hike for too long before I started running again. I was feeling good and when you feel good you don’t waste a second of it. I found myself moving efficiently over the terrain. I was running up the hills even. Thoughts of the Oil Creek 100’s Going Home loop were fresh in my head. I had been determined to shave as much time off as I could muster in those final miles and that feeling and determination returned. I have no clue what my pace was, my Garmin having gave up the ghost over 10 miles ago, but I knew I was in a good place. Hitting the bike path with a little over a mile to go of easy terrain I dug into that tempo feel riding it out to the finish with a personal best for the course by 3:15 and a completion time of 11:38:43.

Big thanks to all the amazing volunteers, the Co-RDs Tammy and Dave, DCNR, the race sponsors, and everyone that makes this event a huge success year after year. Proceeds from the GRT races goes to the Moraine Preservation Fund, the Moraine, McConnell’s Mills, and Jennings Commission, and to Moraine State Park for trail construction and maintenance. Also, some of this year funds went to purchasing a defibrillator for the JEEC.

A huge thanks to my sponsor Hammer Nutrition. Hammer’s line keeps me rolling down the trail and roads strong and recovering fast. Fueling right on and off the course is a key component to maximizing success. Have questions about fueling and recovery? Shoot me a message. My code #255648 will save you 15% off your first order. Fuel right, feel great!

Happy. Tired. Done.