On December 14th, 2015 I began training for the Burning River 100 miler. Technically I was training for a number of events with build-ups, races , and cut backs eventually culminating in running 100 miles. It all seemed so far away, but now it is close. I’d say too close, but I trained as much as I could with my schedule. Some weeks didn’t work out as planned while others far exceeded my hopes. In the process I nabbed a PR at the Pittsburgh Marathon, a new 5k PR with an average pace below 7:00, a personal best for a 30 miler, and also dealt with and learned from my first two DNFs at Laurel Highlands Ultra and the Hell Hath No Hurry 50 miler.
Wrapping up training week #28 was the Hell Hath No Hurry 50 miler. After that race my legs felt great, but my body was worn out from the heat. I ran around 12 miles the following weekend and that was it for the entire week. Week #30 came and it was time to put the hammer down again. I had two weeks to put some work in and then a 3 week taper before the big show. Tuesday and Wednesday I ran 9 miles and 4.6 respectively. Tuesday’s run was at Mingo Creek County Park, Wednesday I spent around my neighborhood, and Thursday was the Steel City Road Runners Flash 5k.
Mingo Creek County Park
Situated in Washington County this park has miles of trails that are primarily used for horse riding and hiking. It was a balmy day in the 80’s with 80-100% humidity so naturally I threw on insulated tights and a long sleeve. Why? Because heat has been kicking my backside on my races lately and I am determined to fight fire with fire. After recovering from HHNH my sights have been focused on finishing training out and on heat acclimatization by running slow and overdressed. For most athletes it takes about 2 weeks to acclimate and I am giving myself 5 weeks.
Once I figured out where the trail started, which was no easy task, I made my way upwards. The first 2 miles had around 600 feet of gain. The trails were very muddy and there was horse poop everywhere! Still, the forest was enjoyable and I was happy to run in my new Altra Superior 2.0s. After a few miles I pulled google maps out to see if I was on course. As I suspected I was not, but where the trail was supposed to be there was nothing. I followed the powerlines until intersecting a trail leading to a park road. Along the way there was a brief period of heavy downpour and I was grateful for the chance to cool off, but as is the case it made the humidity unbearable afterwards. Heat training +1. I followed the road to where it should intersect the trail again, but the trail simply wasn’t there. I scoured the area over 3 times and found nothing. The trails here are poorly marked and at the present time of year many were substantially overgrown. So I took to the roads and when I came across another trail I checked it out. One of these trails connected two fields and there was a great little waterfall. I stopped for a moment to wash my face and take it in. Heat tip: Take any chance you get to wash the salt off your face. It is rejuvenating and will make you feel human again for a little bit.
Steel City Road Runners Flash 5k (PR!)
After a long day of work and so much awful stuff in the news I really wanted to run and run hard. When I got home early enough to make it to the Steel City Road Runner’s Flash 5k I was ready for it. The Steel City Road Runners put on three Flash 5ks in the summer. Three races at different areas around the city. The location is unknown and is not released until the day of the race. It is free to all and fun.
I arrived at the Eliza Furnace trailhead just 15 minutes before the race and had a little over 1/2 a mile to run to get to the location. I ran faster than I should before a race, but arrived in time to chat with friends and briefly recover. I had not raced a 5k in years and was itching to secure a new PR. When Coach Dave gave the signal to go we went screaming off. About 0.2 miles in I looked at my watch and was running a 5:08 pace! This could not last. I fell into a hard, yet sustainable rhythm and when the first mile clicked off at a 6:37 I was stoked! That is where it began to get hard. I went out a little too fast and paid on the next mile ending with a 7:13. After recovering a little mile 3 went off at a flat 7 followed by a hard push for the last 0.12 at a 6:40. When I crossed the line I heard Coach Dave say my time and I hardly believed it. Twenty one minutes and thirty eight seconds! I looked at my watch to confirm and sure enough the average pace was 6:56. I was ecstatic , not to mention utterly spent. After a little recovery I took an easy run back to the car and then home for dinner and relaxing.
Weekend #30 – Pittsburgh and McConnell’s Mills
Saturday: Stairs and SCRR
I got my butt up early and headed to the city hoping to knock out some big miles early and finish up with the Steel City group run. I hit my goals on both counts by hitting the pavement at 4:15AM. The group run wasn’t starting until 7:30 so I had time to play with and a rough plan of action. I wanted to stay close to the SCRR office and I wanted stairs. Lots of stairs.
The back 50 miles of the Burning River course has some stair sets and I need to be prepared. One of the bigger sets comes after the 90 mile mark and it is not legit to get piggyback rides from your pacers (looks like you are off the hook on that one, Tim). I managed a little over 14 miles with repeat loops up 5 different sets of stairs around Troy Hill and only one inappropriate location for a poop. It happens. At the very least I am prepared by always packing tp.
The gist of the morning was like this. Climb up 100+ stairs and run back down the road doing figure eights between stair sets. Climb another 100+ set, rinse, and repeat. It was a great workout and I am getting just a little tired just thinking about it! It is not easy to get people to run with me. Maybe it is starting at 4-5 AM or maybe it is shenanigans like this.
After 3 hours of stairs it was time to meet the SCRR crew. I signed on to do 10 miles and ran with the 9:30 pace group. Good friends for company and great run fun was had as we made our way around the city. I was wore out by the end , but opted to squeeze another 2.2 in for a nice 26.2 day. I ended up walking much of those last 2 miles, which made for a great cool down. Then it was off to do the adult things that needed to be adulted.
This was my first run with a new watch, the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak and I am impressed. I’ll have a review on it soon.
Sunday: McConnell’s Mills
After a hard 26.2 miles what does one do? If you are training for an ultra then you might decide to run 20 miles of technical terrain in an area with almost no cell phone signal (Sprint sucks). I had started laundry and cleaning on Saturday so that when I woke on Sunday I could dive right into finishing things up. I was ready to find trails by 11 AM, a new PR for finishing grown-up things on a Sunday. Where to run? Where to run?
Last month I signed up for the North Country Trail Hike 100 Challenge. The challenge is to hike, run, or stumble 100 miles on the North Country Trail before the end of the year. If you do so you receive a patch. If you happen to be a go-getter and finish by September 15th then your name is put in a drawing for a special edition REI pack.
I had yet to start my miles so I opted for finding a section of the trail to run. After hearing great things about McConnell’s Mills from Alyssa I chose this as my run. It would be very technical and likely involve a fair bit of hiking. As is true with most technical trails I have experienced, the reward comes in the form of stunning natural beauty and this trail delivered.
Starting out at the Hell’s Run trailhead I planned to see how far I could make it in 2 1/2 hours and then turn around. Right at the start there was a good hill climb. Soon I would find out that where there wasn’t a big hill to climb or descend then I could be sure to scramble from rock to rock for miles. It was fun and I felt like a kid running and jumping rock to rock and playing.
End to end the North Country Trail runs roughly 7.6 miles through McConnell’s Mill State Park. The trailhead suggests planning for 6 hours to make it the 6 miles to Eckert Bridge and back, but that estimate is not for a trail runner. I took my time in areas of beauty, which were plentiful, and happily greeted the many people I came upon. I tried to be loud and say hello far before I came up behind people, but I scared the pants off a few of them regardless.
There are a few big climbs en route to Eckert Bridge punctuated by rocky flats along the Slippery Rock Creek. You can tell when you are approaching an area with car access by the increase in people on the trail. Far fewer are spanning the distance between trailheads while most opt to park and walk a mile or two in and enjoy the quiet beauty.
Shortly after passing the bridge I saw a cliff with water dripping off of it. I climbed up slope to stand under it for a short while enjoying the cool sensation and letting the water clear the salt from my face and eyes. Refreshed in body and mind I was ready to continue on.
It wasn’t long before I was at the covered bridge and dam. The bridge is open to both foot and vehicular traffic. It is probably the single most visited location in the park and was fairly crowded on this day. Heading past this area and returning to forest the trail makes it’s way a short distance before heading up slope via a long stair climb letting out at another parking area, Alpha Pass.
From Alpha Pass the North Country Trail follows rolling hills on country roads to Moraine State Park. I followed the route until I was in Moraine and at 10 miles. It was time to start my return. The open road section was much hotter and my pace quicker. It tired me out a bit, but was still enjoyable aside from cars whizzing by at inappropriate speeds.
I ran the return course quicker hoping to be done at 5 hours and I was on track to do so. Again I enjoyed seeing and chatting with people as I passed on by. I even came upon a few runners talking about the Akron marathon course. We chatted for a bit and it turned out they were also ultra runners, but today they were hiking. Soon we parted ways and I was on the climb out of Walnut Flats.
I was tired, but the miles were going off well. That is when it happened. I heard a sound like a bell and my stomach sank. I stopped in my tracks and felt for the small zippered pocket holding my car key. The pocket was closed still, but the key had worn a hole through the pocket and hit a rock. From there it had gone over a cliff. I looked around on the upside and as far down as I could safely make it. Some hikers I had passed earlier stopped to help as well, but no luck. Here I was with no cell phone signal and an hour’s drive from home with no way into my car. I had a spare fob at the house and a spare key inside the car. After a brief panic session I reminded myself that this isn’t really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things and that if I stayed calm and positive things would work out like they always seemed to. Once I made it to the trailhead I asked a few people if they had cell phone signal. One lady was kind enough to let me use her phone. As I was looking up the number for AAA a Park Ranger pulled in. He had a jimmie bar! I climbed on the hood and helped direct him and soon the lock was popped and I was on my merry way! The Ranger and I talked for a bit. He noticed the stickers on my car and mentioned that he used to be a Ranger at Oil Creek State Park, where they hold a well known ultra. It was a great talk and a great end to a perfect weekend!
Weekend #31 – Annie’s Run and Boyce Park
Saturday – Annie’s Run (PR)
During the week I took a few shorter runs and a hike all taken at an easy pace. I hoped to be able to make it to Annie’s Run for at least a few hours and was lucky enough to stay for the entire event. Annie’s Run was founded by a local runner whose wife passed away from breast cancer. The RD is Audrey Burgoon, an Executive Chef, running coach, and all around great person. This year’s race proceeds went to fighting Cystic Fibrosis. Annie’s Run is a 6 hour race. If you have never run a time-based race before I highly recommend it! This was my first. You can run as much or as little as you want. Run a loop, eat and hang out for a few hours, run another loop. Whatever you feel like.
The course was the Gilfillan Farm Trail in Upper St. Clair, a 1.25 mile loop around a farm with over 200 feet of gain. A section of the course went through a small wooded area. The surface varied between wood chips, gravel, and soil. The terrain was very forgiving. Every hour on the hour the course changed directions. I preferred running it clockwise which gave a long down hill on the back half. All of it was fun though. Audrey made a ton of amazing food. There was cookies, banana bread, zucchini bread, hummus and tomato sandwiches, brownies, and much more.
The race started at 6 AM and ran until noon. I had no specific goal in mind aside from getting a long run in and having fun. This was also the perfect opportunity to test out anything I wanted to for Burning River. I could be loose and reckless with little repercussion. In the past I had problems eating aid station food, real food, during long runs. After eating I would get stomach issues and dead legs for 20-40 minutes. It seemed as though things changed in the past year so here was my big chance to try fueling with everything and anything. I started with a 260 calorie bottle of Hammer Chocolate Perpetuem, which I sipped for the first 1 1/2 hours. After this I went to all aid station foods, except for a 1/2 serving of chocolate peanut butter gel and endurolyte caps (electrolytes). I ran a faster pace and still had no issues with the food! Happy days.
Thanks to Skylar I also had ice bandanas to try out. After a few laps I loaded one up with ice and refilled it as needed. Very cool, literally. It was liberating being able to run without the weight or added heat of a hydration vest and all the more so with a big pile of ice on my neck and back. After a few hours the singlet came off. I realized I should plan to run as little of Burning River as possible with a hydration pack. I’ll be using my hip belt when I can and testing handhelds in the next few weeks for use.
Ultimately I met my goals at Annie’s Run. I had tons of fun, got a long run in, and tested out everything I wanted to. This was all great, but what really made this race stand out is the excellent people I was fortunate enough to spend the morning with. It was great getting to run with so many people I would not normally have the opportunity to do so with. To make things even better I walked away with 31.2 miles in 6 hours, a new PR for the 50k by over 1 1/2 hours!! I didn’t have time to hang around and celebrate though. After the race I quickly gathered my things and headed home to get ready for a wedding and some crosstraining via dance.
Sunday – Boyce Park
After coming in later from the wedding and sleeping over 9 hours I was limited on time. I had the get the house cleaned and laundry finished before going for a run. With a late start I was left with just a couple of hours to run. I threw on the heat gear; insulated tights, shorts, a long sleeve , short sleeve, hat, and hydration vest. Boyce Park was today’s destination. The trails were in great shape and it was a beautiful day to be outside. I took my time and found that I had not heated up all that much despite the clothing choices so when I got to the western side of the park I decided to go big with repeats on the ski slopes. I ran down the slopes and hiked up the next one until I had 5 climbs in totaling over 700 feet within a mile or two. Halfway through I stopped by the ski lodge to look for a water fountain. No luck. Upon checking the front door I found it was open. I walked around and did not find a fountain, but I did find something even better! A sink. Not just an ordinary sink. The kind behind a bar. The kind filled with ICE! I loaded each of my bottles with ice and went back to finish my slope climbs. Then it was back down to the bottom followed by the climb up Indian Hill, the highest point in the park. I rounded out the run with 10 miles.
Week #31 done! Taper time!!