Black Forest Ultra 100K. What was I thinking?
I’m still a rookie when it comes to ultramarathons over the 50K distance. Worlds End was my first 100K, earlier this year. I was going for the PA Triple Crown, but to everyone’s disappointment, Eastern States 100 was cancelled. I crewed and paced there last year, and I fell in love with the event, and the area where it is held. Central PA is ruggedly beautiful. I still don’t think I have a desire to put myself through a 100 miler, but I can’t get that race out my head, and it’s a 100 miler, so there you have it. Sign me up!
The love for these trails started for me 5 years ago at my first Hyner 25K. Over the years it grew as I did Hyner Half, Worlds End Fall Classic, Worlds End 50K, Sproul, Call of the Wilds 25K… there are so many great races out there that I’d never be home on weekends if I ran them all! I joke all the time that we should move. The trail running community and the people I’ve met along the way are a big part of what keeps me coming back. I love doing these races just to see my trail friends before, during, and after a race.
Once I signed up for Eastern States, I started collecting DCNR trail maps and studying the trails, so I could get out and train on them. My husband and I did a section of the Black Forest Trail over the winter, and that also caught my interest. When the first post was made about there being a Black Forest Ultra, I wanted to do it, even though I knew it was a terrible idea! I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up for any race put on by David Walker or Craig Fleming. That probably had a big influence on me wanting to do this race, even though Dave seems to like to torture us. It’s not really about the distance, I just want to be on trails I will love, surrounded by beauty, with some views at the top of those ridiculous climbs!
It was a long year of balancing family, work, and training, and I was burned out leading up to this race. I felt good about having gotten some training runs on the Eastern States course. It has shown me just how tough these PA trails can be. I also got out with a group to do the Black Forest Trail 42-mile loop, which took us about 13 hours. I felt more confident having done that, getting a better idea of what I was in for, and knowing that 10-13 miles between aid stations wouldn’t be a problem, after doing 42 miles unsupported. I was concerned about the cutoffs though. Quitting is not an option for me, in my mind. I didn’t sign up for this to not finish it, so I viewed cutoffs as the only thing that could stop me. I’m an average, mid-pack runner. I like to take pictures and enjoy the experience. I admire my friends and their competitive spirit, pushing themselves hard to do well in a race. I just don’t have that, so yeah, cutoffs could be a problem. I don’t really embrace the suffering. The midnight start would be interesting, and I was kind of dreading the 7 hours of dark on the trails. I’ve had some evening headlamp runs at home recently where it was dark and foggy, which left me saying, let’s hope it’s not foggy during the race…
We camped at Hyner Run State Park for the weekend, and I enjoyed a lazy day Saturday just trying to rest and relax before the race. I went for a little walk, and tried, unsuccessfully, to nap.
I continued to eat clean, healthy food, to avoid GI problems that like to show up for me at races. I thought to myself, I kind of like this midnight start. I didn’t have to go to bed at night, dreading getting up ridiculously early to start a race. It was a pretty laid-back pre-race feeling. It’s been a wet summer, so I never expected to have dry feet in this race, but we didn’t need the thunderstorms that came through before the race started! Slick, wet trails and rocks, and probably some fog moving in. Good times! No crew, no pacers… I had to use drop bags and packed way more than I would need, but I figured better safe than sorry. In my daily life I avoid processed food but in a race I prefer it. I figure the more processed it is, the less processing my body needs to do. Each drop bag had a V8, pickle juice shot, cookies, Poptart, candy, fruit strips, Ibuprofen and Excedrin. I put shoes in drop bags for AS3 and AS4, though I doubted I’d be changing shoes. AS3 drop bag also had a portable battery and my watch charging cable. We were required to carry one liter of water and 400 calories (who wouldn’t?), a whistle, emergency blanket, headlamp, spare batteries, windproof jacket, and a hat or buff. I decided to wear my Altra LonePeak 4.0 trail shoes, Xoskin midi shorts, Xoskin toe socks, Nathan VaporAiress hydration vest, and a Black Diamond Headlamp.
We hung out under the pavilion an hour before the race start. There were only 27 people starting the race, and it was nice to know some of them. A few were friends from our local running club, the Pagoda Pacers. I doubted I’d see any of them during the race, as they are all faster runners than me. My plan was to try and stick with Teresa during the dark hours, as we seemed to be around the same pace.
Some words from the race director before the race, and then, hey, it’s midnight, I guess you better get going! The first 10 miles take us on the Donut Hole Trail and T Square Trail, to the Black Forest Trail loop, and then we take those same 10 miles back to the finish. I am familiar with 6 of these miles from running the Hyner Half 3 times and pacing this section at Eastern States. I thought it should be an easy section, not too technical in the dark.
Miles 1-8: We head out through the parking lot and are soon on the Donut Hole Trail for about a 2-mile climb. Hello wet feet, I’ve been expecting you. At the top we go through a deer fence, and there is a nice running section. Then, there is the “V”, which is straight down, and straight back up. It’s always a miracle if I can stay on my feet and not on my ass, especially now that it’s slick from the rain. There are some switchback descents and climbs through here, before we hit the first aid station at mile 8. It’s hard to move fast, with it being wet, dark, and foggy. Teresa is a fast hiker though, and I had to make sure I kept up with her. I don’t think I would have moved that fast without her. We made it to the first aid station by 2:00 am, 30 minutes before the 2:30 am cutoff.
Miles 8-18: I tripped and fell once early in this section, but no harm was done. I was frustrated that despite my healthy eating before the race, I still had GI discomfort. I figured we had 2 miles from the first aid station until we hit the Black Forest Trail loop. There was a steep descent leading down to the Black Forest Trail, and I remember thinking how bad it would be climbing back up this later in the race. It felt good to reach the Black Forest Trail, like progress was being made. We crossed Route 44 and went up a gravel road a bit before the trail turned off to the right. We could be running, but it’s tricky at spots in the dark, especially with the rocks. Oh, those PA rocks! We cross another gravel road, where there would be a nice view to take in, if it wasn’t dark. I can’t remember exactly, but next I’m sure it’s safe to say we had another slow, rocky, tricky descent in the dark. Then we climbed Callahan Run and had a moment or two of wondering where the trail / orange blazes went. Someone had a tent set up along the trail and I wondered if they heard us all going by at this crazy hour. I can’t say much more about this section, since it was dark. Our watches hit 18 miles, and I was familiar enough to know we weren’t anywhere near the first aid station yet. We had a descent and some downhill along Naval Run to do yet. Eventually we heard some yelling and cheering in the distance, but that can be deceiving. There is a turn I would have totally missed if we hadn’t seen other headlamps ahead of us on a switchback. We arrived at Naval Run Rd at 5:10 am, 20 minutes before the 5:30 am cutoff, and at 19.75 miles on our watches, not 18. This was supposed to be an unmanned aid station, but it was a nice surprise to see some people helping here. I drank my pickle shot and V8, some Coca Cola (great combo), restocked on snacks, and we were off. I saw my friend Mike here and asked how it was going. “Not good” he said, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. I hoped daylight would turn things around for him.
Miles 18-28: We climb, and climb some more, and then it kind of levels off, but still seems like a slight grade, which I hate, and am happy to not run it. We still have some other runners around us, but we are all starting to get spread out. I mention to Teresa how my legs feel like they have a lot more miles on them than they actually do. Maybe it’s the midnight start and lack of sleep. Why are we doing this? 50Ks are fun, I should stick to that. This is just stupid! Never again! No more 100Ks for me, and forget me ever doing a 100miler! I can’t wait for daylight, I’m sick of the dark. I hope things improve after sunrise. Another descent that feels too risky to run, and another climb. Who can keep track? Finally, the sky starts to light up and I can turn the headlamp off.
I keep doing the math in my head, 10 miles to the next aid station, that should be mile 30 on my watch, not 28. It’s common to see GPS watches not match race descriptions. I just wanted to know how far I had left and not be disappointed, so I tried to keep track of it. At some point Teresa said to me that if I had it in me to go faster, I should go. I hadn’t really given it any thought. I was just following her along. I didn’t want to leave her, but then I thought, maybe I do need to see if I can move faster. I knew we had a steep descent coming up that I hated, heading down to Slate Run Rd, and then a bit more running before we got to Hotel Manor and the 3rd aid station. That’s when the cutoffs started to enter my mind. I had to move! Of course I did stop to take in the nice view along the way.
I made myself run harder than I normally would have, determined to make it to that aid station. I had some caffeine gum, so maybe that helped me kick it in gear. I worried if Teresa and the rest would make it. I got to aid station 3, carefully making my way across the slick bridge to a smiling David Walker.
8:35 am, 10 minutes before the 8:45 cutoff, and my watch showing 31.3 miles, not 28. I thought I heard that they extended this cut off, so there was still hope for others. I drank my pickle juice and V8. I wanted to ditch my headlamp in my drop bag, since I had two with me, and grab my portable battery and watch charging cable. I also exchanged my buff for a hat. I had an awesome volunteer help refill my water, and I wish I knew his name. He helped get my gross hydration vest back on, stuffed my snacks in my pockets, and told me to leave my stuff and they’d pack it back up for me. I was out of there within 5 minutes. Thank you!
Miles 28-41: I was surprised to see Ryan at the aid station but was happy to spend some of that miserable climb out of Slate Run with him. Wow, that climb is so much harder once you have 30 miles on your legs! There are some cool rock formations and views along this climb. This next section was 13 miles. Doing the math again, that should be at least 44 miles on my watch, not 41, and I had 3 hours and 50 minutes to travel 13 miles. Ryan didn’t sound optimistic about that being enough time, so that had me worried.
Once you finish that never-ending climb, you stay up top for a while, which makes for some good running. Why do my legs hurt so much? How are my friends out doing 100 milers this weekend? Does it hurt this bad? Should I start taking some pain relievers, or is it too soon? Those are a few of the randoms thoughts in my head. I had to force myself to run here, and then like PA tends to do, the trail turns into a rock garden.
Another nice view, and then the rocky descent from hell. On our training run I landed on my ass in this section, on a rock, and was left with a nice bruise and knot as a reward. I took each step carefully. Never trust a rock, especially when they are wet! Not even the water flowing next to me could help the misery of this section.
My legs felt like jelly, and I’d let out the occasional swear word on the way down those rocks. I didn’t even want to take pictures, and if you know me, you know that’s bad! Eventually, I reached the bottom, and things got better. There is one crazy water crossing that I am thankful there is a little bridge to cross.
I came up to a gravel road and the water drop, before hitting the trail and another climb. I see Ryan below as I start to climb. Less than 6 miles to go until the next aid station. More nice running sections, making up for how bad other sections were. Again, I wonder if running is made easier with the caffeine gum. I don’t drink coffee, so I need other forms of caffeine. By this point I had started alternating Excedrin and Ibuprofen as well, to help lessen the pain in my legs!
I reached aid station 4 at 12:17, 13 minutes before the original cutoff. This cut off had also been extended another 30 minutes beyond that. My watch showed 44.5 miles, not 41. I asked about the next aid station cut off, and they informed me that it is not being extended. I drank my pickle juice, V8, ate a pierogie from the aid station, got my water refilled, and restocked my snacks before heading back out. Most of the time I found myself grabbing snacks from my drop bag and not really paying much attention to the aid station offerings. I probably wasn’t doing the greatest job of making sure I was taking in calories on a regular basis or taking salt, but it was going ok.
Miles 41-54: I cross Route 44, and the trail is like a driveway before becoming trail again, and then the trail split. One sign says High Water Route, Black Forest Trail to the left, and to the right says something different. Di Shay, Sentiero, I’m not sure, but it did NOT say Black Forest Trail. Neither direction has orange blazes. I start to go the High Water Route, since at least that said Black Forest Trail, but I know that’s not right. We took that way on our training run to avoid the high water… and there aren’t enough footprints in the mud to be right, so I go back, frustrated that it isn’t flagged. I know that is part of this race though. It was advertised as such. The Black Forest Trail is blazed orange, so there is no need for flags unless it was a questionable turn. Well this seemed like one of those questionable turns, but whatever. I go the other way, straight/to the right, and soon see orange blazes again. I have never done this section, since on our training run we opted for the High Water Route. Well, this section crossed the stream more times than I cared to count. It was hard to get a running rhythm going. I told myself the stream crossings were better than mud, but come on, enough! There was a crossing or two that I lost the blazes and didn’t know where to go, but I found it again without wasting too much time.
I got some decent running in before coming to what felt like a terrible climb. Then big rocks get thrown into the terrible climb, requiring me to climb up a rock on my knees at one point. This is slowing me way down! You may think it sounds easy to go 13 miles in 3 hours and 50 minutes, but then there are sections from hell like this. Once through the rocks, there’s an opening with a nice view.
Back to running until I get to this random section that is open and exposed. With all the rain we’ve had, it’s a swampy, shoe sucking mud fest. I was looking forward to a stream crossing after that!
There’s a little downhill running, and then I once again found myself wondering where the trail went. I just keep looking around for those orange blazes until I find them again. You could easily be led astray if you were following someone else and not paying attention. You never know when they might go the wrong way. I spent over half of this race alone, and oddly didn’t mind it. I guess if you are mentally prepared to be alone, knowing pacers aren’t allowed, it’s not as bad.
I think there was another little climb along some high mountain laurel, or rhododendron. I should really learn my plants and trees, but anyway, you can see this section is nicely maintained.
I think there was some more nice running, and then I heard something strange. Is that a bird, or a whistle? Is it a hiker whistling for their dog? Is someone lost? I finally yell out “hello”, and then soon see what looks like another runner ahead and to the left of the trail. It’s Anna, and I’m shocked to see her. She gets in front of me and starts telling me about how she got lost and has been going in circles. She put on extra miles, her watch is dead, and she was at the point of trying to find a road. Her legs feel dead now. As she’s telling me all this, I’m stressing over the cutoff at the next aid station. I think we have 8 miles to go. How much time do we have? How do I pass Anna? She’s an extremely good runner that it feels wrong to go around her, but I really need to move faster! I’m probably worrying too much. I don’t want to leave her, but I didn’t come this far to get cut at the last aid station. I asked her if she could run, because I’m worried about the cutoff. She started to alternate running and hiking. Not a bad pace, but I’m worried. We pass two vistas, but I’m not really interested at this point. We pass the water drop, and that was reassuring to know we had 6 miles to go to the next aid station. We should have enough time, but what if there is another nasty climb or rocky section? I think it should be 4 more miles on the Black Forest Trail, and then we get back on the T Square Trail for about 2 miles to the aid station. I know we have that terrible climb as we first get on T Square Trail. We came up on a little shelter made of rocks. Anna took the trail right next to it, and I said, I think the trail goes this way, based on the blazes. Either way, it leads up to the same spot, but I’m able to get ahead of her and tried to run as much as I could.
There’s a nice section along the water and I knew I must be getting close. I couldn’t wait to get off this Black Forest Trail, just for mental reassurance that I was getting closer. Just keep moving.
I got to the fifth and final aid station, which was also the first aid station. It was 3:33 pm, 42 minutes before the 4:15 pm cutoff. 57.5 miles according to my watch, not 54. I got my water refilled while they offered me lots of food options. I had a grilled cheese, and they informed me that I was the third female. How was that possible? I guess it’s very possible in a low entry race like this, but I’m just not used to hearing something like that. Kind of ironic, I could be 3rd female, yet last female, so is it really that good? They tell me Rhoda took the overall lead late in the race, and I am so happy for her! I say thank you and get on my way.
Mile 54-62.4: I have over 3 hours to get these last 8 miles done. I’m getting to see it in the daylight now. There are some trees across the trail, and it’s hard to lift my legs over them! It feels good to know I’ve made it. I’m going to finish in time. Now I just want to keep moving and get it done. Towards the end of Worlds End 100K I knew I had plenty of time to finish, and I took my time because my legs hurt so bad. I am surprised by how well I am still able to move at this point, compared to my last experience. I wasn’t exactly fast, but I was running when I could. I was happy to get back on the trails I am familiar with from the Hyner Half. The climbs were really hard at this point. It’s kind of funny how much harder compared to when you are doing them on fresh legs. I had to stop and brace myself on a tree quite a few times on each climb.
The “V” was so bad, and I had to lean back as I carefully made my way down this steep descent, trying to put my hand on anything I could to keep from slipping. I imagine any little slip would have sent my legs into a serious cramp.
Wait, what is this, another little “V”?! I forgot about that one. I looked forward to the deer fence, knowing that got me one step closer to the finish. Then the last 2 miles were downhill, and not nearly as bad as that last descent at Worlds End.
That seemed to go on forever, but then there it was, the finish! I love that David Walker is always waiting at the finish line of his races to give you a high five, or in this case, hug a gross, sweaty runner! I tell him something along the lines of “that was terrible, and I never want to do another 100K.” Rhoda is also there, which I love about her, sticking around long after she’s been done, to watch other runners finish.
As for my husband, he missed it again. A repeat of my Hyner 50K finish. He has bad timing on when he decides to go back to the camper, but at least he had food ready for me for later. I finished in 17 hours and 50 minutes. 1 hour and 10 minutes before the 19-hour cutoff. I was happy to see Anna finish 10 minutes behind me. Three more runners came in together, and that was it. It was nice to sit down and talk to other runners like Mike, Ryan, and Renee. Then I left for a much-needed shower.
There were 27 people that started this race, and 9 finished. I was number 5 of those 9. That is unbelievable to me. It’s still sinking in. I’m just your average runner, but I got it done. I now have a nice Patagonia finisher vest to proudly wear. I know it should be about the experience, and not the swag, but I like to have something to show my accomplishment.
After finishing that race, I would have told anyone, don’t do it! Why would you want to do it? It’s brutal! Now as the pain is fading, and I fondly look back on the accomplishment, I’m already thinking about what stupid things I can get myself into next year. Maybe I want that Triple Crown after all. I think the difficulty of this race will attract more people to it. I will say it’s a race to take seriously. It will beat you up, and you better be ready for it. However bad you think it might be, it’s worse!