Monday, April 10, 2017

Oil Creek 2016: Diamonds in the Ashes

   Oil Creek is my focus event every year. Much has been written about the allure of this incredible trail event with incomparable natural beauty and the contagious support and enthusiasm of the ultra community. It is a place that has become special for me and my family, and it was here that I was determined to make my first attempt at 100 miles along with my brother Eric and trail brothers Jeff Kacszak and Mike Koontz. Having completed the 100k the last four years, I knew I was ready for the challenge of pushing myself to the brink of endurance.
   It's important to note that for me, completing such an accomplishment would have little meaning by myself. I was looking forward to the fact that I had talked my brother into a second 100 mile effort after he was sure his OC100 finish two yeas ago was enough. Jeff would also be making his first attempt, and I would visualize the three of us trudging through the darkness of that third and final loop before emerging from the 7 mile "Going Home" loop battered but victorious together. I knew I would be fine through the first 100K. My training effort focused on the requisite long miles with some strength training, as well as several ultras leading up to OC. As the weeks passed, I was growing tired of training and was especially encouraged by how good I felt at mile 70 (according to my Garmin) of the Montour 24 in July despite the incredible heat and exertion of that day. The three of us decided to shut down after 70 miles since it was not our goal event, but I had the confidence that I could have kept going had I chosen to do so. While I'm not a very fast runner and the word "elite" will never appear in my eulogy, I was prepared to mentally and physically endure the suffering it would require to attain my first 100 mile buckle.
   It's funny how life can throw those wicked curveballs at us, though. We think we have everything under wraps and we make plans based on assumptions that are actually beyond our control. One of those assumptions for me was that the emotional stress of seeing my only child depart for a foreign country to serve as an intern with International Justice Missions would have a nominal impact on my state of mind at Oil Creek. Running has always played an important role in stress management, but I had completely underestimated the toll that emotional stress can have on a person. It's been said that emotional stress carries 100 times the weight of physical stress, but I didn't want to believe that. I had worked all summer to push those feelings of concern and loss almost to a state of denial. When the days began to count down to her departure, I was, in every respect, a grieving parent. My excitement for her involvement in such a noble, compassionate effort was tempered by the fact that my only child was leaving home for a year. Every concern and contingency for her well-being was compounded as each day passed. And while I leaned heavily on my faith, I struggled, slept little, and found myself distracted. And on September 25th, she flew halfway around the world.
   With just days to the race, I looked forward to the solace and solitary healing that trail running often provides. By focusing on every step, every breath, every footfall, every moment, I anticipated that the focus required by running Oil Creek with family and friends in attendance would recharge me. After wrestling with the anticipation of my daughter's trip, it had arrived; she was safely established on the other side of the globe, and now I could focus - at least for the next several days- on running the race I had trained so long and so hard for.
   And then life threw a second pitch- this one a fastball to my head, and I couldn't duck in time.
   On Tuesday the week of the race, I fell ill. At first I thought maybe it would pass, but as day turned to night, the intensity of the illness led to a full revolt of my digestive system that left me weakened and feverish. Tuesday turned into a fever-laden Wednesday, and despite crawling out of bed to teach a grad class Wednesday night, I just as quickly returned and remained there through Thursday. How could this be happening to me? Oil Creek was supposed to be the big event - the signature on my season! By Thursday night I had convinced myself that my fever was gone and I was feeling better. I was able to re-organize and double check my drop bags; I was even growing excited about the upcoming race. By Friday, my adrenaline had taken over. I would be toeing the line for my first 100 miler with my brothers and I was eager to depart for Titusville!
   On Friday, I picked up our pacer (Mike) who was so excited about pacing me that I felt sure there was no way I could fail to disappoint him. His excitement was contagious and for awhile, I forgot I had been ill. I knew I was weakened by the last few days, but I was sure I could hammer through it. Then, somewhere along I-80, the fever came back. I told no one. As I broke out into a sweat, I tried to keep up the casual banter about our race plans with Mike. At our pre-race meal, I told no one about how I felt. There was no way I was going to miss this race. I didn't want to dampen their anticipation with my own agony. Despite no appetite, I slowly tried to put down a plate of spaghetti. I was counting on a good night's rest to be ready to go by morning. "This can't be real; this can't be happening, not at Oil Creek", I thought.
   In retrospect, my race was over before it began. I had no business even being out there, but at 5AM, I was packed and ready to go, envious of the nervous energy and excitement exhibited by other runners. I had none of it. I was simply there, hoping against hope that after a few miles, training would kick in and I would be able to go on sheer force of will alone. But here I was- there was still a chance. I didn't want to let my brother down - this was a day when epic memories would be made! We had all promised to start out slowly and conservatively, but I knew well enough that Jeff was strong and would start out faster. I was hoping to tag along with Eric at a nice, easy pace, but told him at the start to just go ahead, because I had no idea how I would feel the first few miles. The countdown began, there were cheers, and we headed off into the cold and damp morning. Rain was in the air but was forecast to clear out by mid-afternoon. I knew the sun and warmth would pick up my spirits and who knows? By that time, I would be back in my groove, right?
   By mile 4 I knew I was in trouble. Every step I took was a major effort; I felt like I was running with an anvil in my pack. My heart rate was elevated, my strength was sapped. I slowed down. "No worries", I thought, "It's a long race. It will get better". I slowed down to an easier pace. Eric ran on ahead. But then a new problem developed: everything I was taking in was just sitting in my gut. My stomach was walled off and was simply filling. There was no processing of anything. Only 4 or 5 miles into the race, I was already beginning to cramp. "This can't be good", I thought. I sipped more Tailwind. It just cannon-balled into my stomach and sat there.
   I began to feel light-headed, and the only thing I recall about the next few miles was plodding one step at a time into the Wolfkiel Aid Station. As I stumbled in, I did my very best to look fine, but I had to grab a table to steady myself as I thought I might pass out. Terrific aid station volunteers asked me questions; I don't remember responding. My only thought was how in the heck I was going continue on to Petroleum Center, because I didn't think I would make it. I was in trouble, but I knew my family was just 7 miles ahead. I began the steep climb up the switchbacks, which might as well have been Mt. Everest. My strength was sapped, I was lightheaded and dizzy, and my stomach was now beginning to become distended. Nothing was working. Nothing was processing. Nothing...Nothing..
   During the stretch between Wolfkiel and PC, a section I really enjoy and look forward to, I began to experience a little panic. As I ran, I seemed to fade out as if in a dream. Several times I "woke up" to find myself off the trail, disoriented, or confused. I remember specifically stopping at least two times trying to locate the trail, only to find it was just a few feet to my right or left. Here I actually became a little panicked. If I couldn't control my direction, what the heck was going on? Was this a dream? What am I doing? At one point, I thought I was lost. I stopped and tried to reorient myself. When I came to my senses, as it were, I realized I was standing in the middle of the trail.
   It was sheer force of will to continue on into Petroleum Center. Climbing Ray's Everlasting Hill, I had to stop every ten feet or so to gather my strength and regain some sort of composure. I was beginning to unravel. Several runners passed by, boosted by that early morning energy rush and with bounce in their step.
    "You ok?" they asked.
    "Yeah, I'm good", I lied. I just wanted to crawl by a log and fall asleep. That or call to be evacuated.
   What usually takes me about 2 hours and 15 minutes turned into a 3 hour and 40 minute ordeal. I was way off, even for a conservative pace reserved for 100 miles. I emptied both my bottles shortly after Wolfkiel; it was all in my stomach. I refilled at a water station and drank greedily. Cramping, thirsty, cold, and dizzy, with a bloated stomach, I finally staggered out onto the road leading to PC. I saw a photographer on the bridge and used every ounce of energy to try and look good. Looking back at that photo, it's hard to imagine the hell I was going through just to put one foot in front of the other.
   At this moment, though, I still convinced myself I would try to go on. But I didn't know how I could. I knew I was way off pace; it had been an epic struggle just to make it to this point and I was afraid of those apparent lapses in consciousness where I would feel like I was waking up to discover I was still participating in a trail event. By this time, Jeff was way out ahead; my brother was also well into the back half of Loop 1.
   And I was alone. Alone when the waves of emotion for my daughter crashed over me. Alone when my body broke down. Alone to confront the cold, stone-faced reality that I would not get to press on with my brothers today. Alone when I felt a year's worth of training slipping away for nothing. It was one of the lowest points in my life.
   When I got to PC, I tried to smile for the camera, knowing my mom would compile an album of the day's epic adventures for each of us to treasure. But today, this would be a monument to defeat. As I sat down at a picnic table with my crew, they were asking questions, preparing me to continue as they had not yet fully realized what was happening. My head was spinning. I looked up at Heisman Hill and the path ahead.
    And then I put my face in my hands, and I sobbed.
    I knew I had to drop.
   I remember seeing Brian Newcomer; I walked over and mumbled something to him about not being able to go on. I don't know why, but I even felt like I was letting him down. I don't recall what he said to me.
   I was letting down my family, my brother, my friends. I was letting down my daughter. I was letting myself down. That's how I had framed this effort. Instead of epic accomplishment, today would be a day of epic defeat. Crushed. Devastated. Angry. Disappointed. And tired. So very ,very tired.
  Cold, soaked, exhausted, bloated, and anguished to the point of tears (I am not ashamed to admit it), I officially DNF'd for the first time in my life.

   It's March 28, 2017. Five months after the epic crash at Oil Creek, I'm still looking for diamonds in the ashes. I'd like to say this will be a story of magnificent resilience and redemption. But after focusing so hard on Oil Creek by putting miles on my feet and time and training under my belt, I cannot find the drive to pick up again. My daughter is still overseas; I miss her terribly. Other priorities and commitments have evolved, and I wonder if I will ever summon the will to go back to Oil Creek for another attempt at the 100 miler. This season, I've scaled back both my training and my list of events. I've lost my motivation; I seem burned out.  I want running to be fun again; I want to fall in love with the prospect of overcoming what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle. Funny thing about life, though: sometimes we can only handle so many challenges at one time. And this year, Oil Creek will have to wait. But it's there, in the back of my mind. I am getting older; time is running out. But it's still out there. 
   And I will lace up once again. 
   And I will get after it.

Call of the Wilds 2015: Flirting with Diasaster

Before I start sounding like I am making up excuses for my rather pedestrian 9hour and 17 minute finish at this year's Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon (more like 28-29 miles with 7400ft. elevation gain), let me make the following admissions:

  • My training this year is significantly behind last year's mileage and difficulty. No excuses - it's just that trying to balance life this year was more difficult, stressful, and demanding, so I simply have not been able to focus on improving over last year's performances and have been in "maintenance mode" as a runner. 
  • I did not do my homework for this year's race. Last year, I finished at a respectable 8 hours and 4 minutes - not bad for the first time on such a difficult course and rather acceptable considering I viewed it as a training event leading up to the Oil Creek 100K in October. This year, I hardly looked at a map and relied on memory (most of which my mind erased for my sanity and protection). 
  • I failed to consider what might happen if weather conditions were more typical for mid-August instead of last year's temps which were in the mid to low 70's. And that, my friends, was probably the biggest mistake I made, turning a challenging trail run into a struggle just to finish intact and healthy. This year's temps reached 90 degrees in nearby Williamsport and humidity was as high as 95% before sunrise. The temps would prove to be a near insurmountable body blow to any hope of repeating or improving upon last year's effort. 
Now for the things that went completely wrong:

  • As a result of the temperatures and humidity, I was losing water at a rate much faster than I can ever remember. Sweat was literally dripping off the front of my visor like rainwater throughout much of the race (except when I stopped sweating altogether, which was a different issue). I simply was not able to hydrate quickly enough nor adequately enough through my Nathan bladder, and sucking on that hose just did not give me any indication of how much or how little I was rehydrating. Regardless, conditions were so difficult for me that I could have been carrying two milk jugs full of water and I don't know that I could have replaced lost fluids quickly enough. How bad was it? At the beginning of the race I was part of a cardio study and I had to weigh in with all my gear. After two days of hydrating as much as possible and two huge plates of pasta and meatballs the previous night and a full stomach from breakfast, I weighed in at a surprising 178 with all gear fully loaded (still surprising to me - I weigh around 166 and thought 178 was obscene). When I completed the race, I was weighed in at the finish line (granted my hydration pack was not as full at that point), but my weight was 167 with full gear. Net loss of 11 pounds. At home this morning, I weighed in (without gear, obviously) at 163. 
  • I completely screwed up my hydration in a manner that can only be considered comical (if it weren't so stupid and dangerous). I have SaltStick caps I use to replace electroytes, and the bottle reads about 550mg of sodium chloride per cap. That's alot, even when losing electrolytes and salt, and I generally use those caps by "feel", meaning I will wait until I sense a familiar weakness or cramping sensation to indicate I should take a tab. Too much salt is dangerous in warm weather conditions, so I defer to a more conservative use of those tabs. However, I recently purchased another brand called "Rehydr8" which only carries about 200mg of sodium chloride plus other electrolytes, so the recommended dosage is more than one tab when taking them - or - as I thought during the race, I can take them a little more frequently and maintain a constant intake of electrolytes and salt without overdoing it. Well, being the overly cautious idiot that I am, I packed both the Rehydr8 tabs and the SaltStick tabs in case I didn't like the Rehydr8 and I could fall back on what worked in the past. Within the first hour, I grabbed a salt tab after gushing sweat like a mobile shower and completing the first climb (which was a rude awakening and a reminder of the epic difficulty of this course). Instead of grabbing a Rehydr8, I grabbed the more potent Salt Stick. Not a problem, except for the first three hours, I took tabs at one per hour and ended up with a gut full SaltStick tabs instead of the Rehydr8. Now I'm loosing way too much fluid and taking in way too much salt without proper dilution. And now I am hurting big time. 
  • The heat. I can usually muscle through heat. I did fairly well at the World's End 50K and completed the Oil Creek 100K during a day that featured well-above normal temps and humidity. But today was absolutely brutal. Throughout most sections of the course, there was absolutely no air movement, and it was hard to maintain any level of exertion without overheating and becoming dizzy, nauseous, or weak. On top of that, most of the exposed sections of the course (ridgelines and fire roads) were pounded by the sun and again, without alot of air movement. It was crazy. If I try to run through it to get past it, I overheated and wanted to lie down by the trail. Speed hike it and I end up being exposed to the sun and heat much longer than I wanted, gradually wearing me down. It was absolutely a no win situation, and by the time I faced the last major hill after Aid Station 4, I didn't see how I would finish this race. 
  • Aid Station issues. As I mentioned, my hydration was completely messed up. Taking the wrong salt tabs, then recognition of that fact, made me stop taking them for quite awhile. No problem - I supplemented with my own food and grabbed some pretzels at aid stations. By the way - it was so hot outside that any peanut butter and jelly sandwiches prepared felt like they were made on toast. I knew I was in trouble by aid station 3, and apparently, so did a few volunteers who insisted I take their water bottles even before I climbed the macadam hill to the aid station. I felt the urge to use the restroom, so I stopped in and that's when I had a scare. I managed about a shot glass full of fluid and it was very, very brown. Now we have issues. Although not tea or cola colored, I was definitely in the amber range. So now I am forced to linger at the aid station for far longer than I want to, slowly sipping water so as not to get sick on my stomach while trying to rehydrate. In the sun. By aid station 4, I knew that I was not likely to match my time from last year. The conditions, combined with hydration errors and perhaps a little less training than before, turned the day into a battle of endurance. The clock didn't matter. Now it was a matter of whether I would even finish. And I wasn't quitting unless I passed out along the trail. By the last aid station, I had to use a kiddie pool to cool my body temp down. I allowed myself to find a little shade and sat in the grass while eating watermelon. All told, I probably lost at least 40 minutes total at aid stations just making sure I could cool down, rehydrate, and summon the energy to keep going. 
  • Humidity - As anyone knows who has done the Call of the Wilds course, it's not a course for beginners or casual trail runners. It is not a recreational course for fitness runners. It can be ruthless, technical, brutal, and punishing. After finally reaching the summit after some gut-busting climbs, one would think a nice downhill section would allow for one to make up some time. But at Call of the Wilds, many of the downhills run through loose rock, scree, and old stream beds, making the downhills a threat to break an ankle with every step. As if that weren't enough, the humidity seemed to glaze the rocks in oil, and even my Brooks Cascadias had trouble finding any grip as I'd slip and slide through the descents even slowing for fear of breaking or turning an ankle. Last year, I remember bombing through some of those descents, but after being gut-punched by the heat and in a much different frame of mind and body, I was descending many of those sections far more purposefully and cautiously. Kudos to the elite folks who can crush those sections - I'm just not in their league. 
I'm usually a top third finisher, but not this time. My only consolation was that guys I usually finish with also seemed to struggle and lost as much as an hour from their previous year's time. What I'd like to learn as how the top finishers - not necessarily elite guys - managed to crush the course, stay hydrated well, and perform as well as they did. All told - this was not my day and I complicated it with a series of errors and by becoming dehydrated. I fought that issue from behind the rest of the day, and although I haven't seen the final tally of finishers, I suspect the heat claimed quite a few DNF's. 

I'm not sure I'm going back, although there is a part of me that would like to make Call of the Wilds a focus race instead of a training run to see if I can strategically and physically master the course.

Note: I went back in 2016. Did it again. Suffered again, too. There's no way around it: this is one of the toughest trail events anywhere in PA. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

RothrockTrail Challenge: Blood, Sweat, and Finisher's Stitches

     I look forward to the Rothrock Trail Challenge each June, arguably one of the most technically challenging trail races in Central PA. It's a great litmus test in my training progression as I prepare for the week of insanity when I will be enduring the 26-28 mile Bald Eagle Megatransect at the end of September, followed by a max effort at the Oil Creek 100K the following weekend. The location outside of State College, PA, is filled with rocks, roots, and ledges, but despite the technical nature and elevation gains, it is among my favorite events. This year, I had hoped my training would lead to dramatically improved times indicating I was farther along in my preparation for the season than last year.    
I entered the race with a specific training mindset - I did not care to necessarily set a personal best, but rather I wanted to maintain a consistent, steady pace from start to finish. Specifically, I wanted to find a pace I could endure without walk breaks or without bonking and struggling to complete the last 4 miles in some sort of death slog. I wanted to feel as though I could keep going by the time I crossed the finish line. I guess what I was hoping was that I could maintain a strong effort over the entire distance with no ebbs or low points.  And if I could shave off a little time from last year's finish, then that would be a bonus.
   So what happened? I shaved ten minutes off my previous time and also shaved a few fibers off my patellar tendon when I came barreling down the gravel road toward the finish line. I had essentially broken into a max effort pace from the end of the trail all the way to the gravel road, and with the finish line in sight, I was stretching out and pushing hard. I had made it! I accomplished my goal. I ran a very tough, technical course without stumbling, falling, or bonking and maintained a very disciplined, steady, and strong pace. I was feeling great!
   40 yards from the finish line, it happened.

   I remember pushing myself hard and looking up at the clock at the finish line. At exactly the moment I recognized that I might have improved my time over last year, my left foot snagged on a rhododendron root sticking up among the small rocks on the gravel roadway.  There was no time to break the fall; I had just kicked into a finishing sprint (well, to any observers that's what I thought I was doing, anyway) when the foot caught, and I went face forward with my right knee taking the full impact of the fall. I managed to roll, did a quick assessment to see if anything was broken, couldn't really feel anything, responded with something stupid when a few onlookers asked if I was ok, and hobbled across the finish line.
   I'm not sure if it was the fall or effort the last few miles or a combination of both, but when I crossed the finish line, I was primed to hurl. I also felt the blood dripping down my leg, and when I looked down, I ascertained that a few of the cuts could be rather serious.
   Fortunately, great guy and Wicked Genius of the Megatransect David Hunter was on site. Dave is like part of my trail running family and a guy who embodies the sheer joy of running out in the woods and over boulders and into rattlesnakes. He took a look at the knee and helped me get my bearings. For some reason I suddenly felt very wiped out and I toyed with the idea of losing consciousness. Not sure why, but I had suddenly become very dizzy and somewhat disoriented. I grabbed some drink and a little food while Dave assessed the knee, cleaned it out, and recommended a visit to the local ER.
   I'm not sure what was more embarrassing - wiping out so close to the finish after picking my way through the entire race without falling, or the fact that despite my improvement in race time, I didn't move up significantly in position.
   Ultimately, I accomplished my goal and in retrospect, I could have pushed harder in spots along the course and could have probably shaved more time off my finish. But that wasn't necessarily my goal. I do think the overall competition was much faster this year but I still have much work to do before October.
   I ended up with a rather painful bone contusion on my tibia and did kiss the patellar tendon with the sharp edge of a rock, but no long term damage is expected. I ended up with 9 stitches which I'm more proud of than my finisher's medal.
I just wish it would have happened anywhere but on the easiest segment to the finish!
   As a side note, the most painful aspect of the injury was not on the kneecap where most of the stitches are, but on the bony protrusion of my tibia. Even now as I compose this blog almost 2 months after the fact, the tibia at that point is more than double its normal size. Range of motion is fine but after a long day of running it can be very tender. It's very manageable, but I admit I cringe at the prospect of falling and hitting that same area again.

Looking forward to next year's event. This time, the goal will be to complete the last few hundred yards without stumbling.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Guest Blog: Running Your First 100 Miler

   It goes without saying that there is a form of camaraderie among ultra runners that transcends most sports. Rare is the breed of trail runner who closely guards his secrets, seeking to crush the competition and hoard any kind of accolades to himself. No, this is a sport of brotherhood and sisterhood--a family of sorts. This is a sport made up of enthusiasts who encourage one another, push each other, and seek to support each other to excel and to reach for a dream.
   I was reminded of this recently when my brother decided to take on his first 100 Miler tin this year's upcoming Oil Creek event in 2014. While I still seek the challenge of confronting the realities of growing older while trying to shave time off my previous 100K races, my brother is determined to take that next step into insanity a realm few ever achieve, let alone even think about: his first 100 miler. While I offered to skip my race this year to pace him, he would have none of that. At first I was disappointed; we've been running together for several years now, and I wanted to be there to support him and encourage him during those darkest hours when he visits that place within his soul only he can go as he inches ever closer to finishing 100 miles. But then, I was encouraged. Encouraged because I knew that he would draw strength from knowing I was out there on the course with him, pushing myself to meet a goal and to compete. He will draw strength knowing that I will also be fighting my own battles. While we might not run together physically, we will be together in mind and spirit, inspired and encouraged by each other and the great challenges we have placed before us.
   Another trail brother who runs with us in mind and spirit is our friend, Brian Newcomer. Brian is a trail running celebrity in Central Pennsylvania, but his fame and celebrity status come not from the artificial kinds of hype found in most of today's commercialized sports; his fame stems from the size of his heart, his infectious enthusiasm, his never-say-quit spirit of encouragement and his purity of friendship. Brian is everybody's friend; everyone's trail brother. He is like a kid on Christmas morning during trail runs, sometimes to the point where one has to wonder where this guy gets all of his positive energy and perseverance. His exuberance for life and joy in the outdoors is transparent and pure; he vocalizes what we all think and embodies the true essence of trail running. We might not physically run together much, but the effects of his companionship--when we do--last long into the training season to the point where, on any given run, I might ask, "I wonder what Brian is doing today?" When Brian was preparing for his own 100 Miler last year, he would chronicle his progress on Facebook with the same enthusiastic, "life is good" exuberance--on good days and right through the inevitable rough patches in training. Brian has his own story to tell, and it's a good one. Faced with poor health, increasing weight, and a refusal to "let go" of life, Brian's story is a story of transformation. It deserves to be told, and for those who know it, he continues to be an inspiration.
   Brian doesn't blog. He should. He has much to share, great happiness to give, much support and friendship to offer, and has become a true spokesperson for grabbing life by the shoulders and shaking everything out of it he possibly can.  But until he blogs, I would like to share some advice Brian wrote to my brother when asked what to expect on his first 100 Miler. He knew Brian would be down-to-earth, honest, and a brother who wants you to do well and succeed. And this is exactly what Eric got. I present to you Brian's advice for a 100 Miler, and it's not so much filled with technical information as it is a spirit of giving, genuine concern, and transparency--which is what makes Brian so special:

First off Eric let me apologize for taking so long to get back to you.   I didn't think one or two sentences would be an appropriate answer to such an important question.   I haven't a doubt you can and will complete this task. Three things I feel it takes to do a 100 miles are, 1. Physical endurance,  2. Mental Toughness (when one of the wheels on the cart starts to wobble you gotta know how to keep it on.......I think you know all about this from doing 2 100k's and the Megatransect a few times)  3. a little bit of craziness......lets face gotta be a little crazy to want to run 100 miles! 

The biggest key to one hundred mile success in my opinion is long training days, and not just mileage but time on your feet.  You need to learn how to fuel and hydrate your body for 25 plus hours.  Your body needs to become acustom to endurance.  Otherwise your body will freak out at mile 40 or 60 and go into survival or "fight or flight" mode.  When this happens your body diverts blood away from the periphery (arm/legs) and stomach and sends it to vital organs such as the brain, heart and lungs.  Thus your stomach absorbs very little fluid from your gut and you get dehydrated even though you continue to drink.  Your gut gets sloshy and you feel bloated but at the same time feel thirsty.  If this happens to you, you must slow down or stop.  Allow your body to get back into normal mode and absorb those fluids. 

From February until the 100 miler I had done 9 training days/events of 31 miles or greater, two of those were 50 milers and two were mid 40's.  I also did a handful of marathon distances as well.  You certainly won't need to train as much as I did as you seem to have more natural abilities than I.  

Three big keys a friend of mine likes to talk about are the three "F's", friction and fluid.  I powdered and lubed at every aid station.   I don't care how tough you are, if you get a bad case of chub rub you are done.  I had no problem with chub run in the usual areas at all.  I did however develop a bad rash under my arms from sweating and swinging my arms and my lower back from my camel bak vest (I didn't use the bladder I had a bottle I put in it and some basic items). I did develop a few blisters on my feet, althought the pictures of my feet looked much worse than they really were.  I had put a lot of tape of "hot spots".  My crew did a great job! I would recommend frequent powdering, sock changes, shoe changes and taping any areas that you have problems with.  I used a great thin cloth like tape dressing material called Hypafix (you can prolly find it online) before and during the event.

One thing I think was also a big key was my ability to rest for 20 minutes and then get up and run strongly again.  I had trained this way and I feel it really paid off.   I think I paced myself pretty well. I actually beat my 100 K time from 2011 of 16' 20" when I did the 100 miler. I did the first 100 k in 16' 10", and I felt incredible until abut mile 70. Then from 75 on it was tough, although I still had some in the tank as I did the last 7.8 mile loop in 2' and 3".  I just wanted it to be over!, lol.   If I was doing it again I would prolly go a little faster while I felt good.  I truly feel no matter how fast or slow you do 60 or 70 miles, when mile 80 hits you are gonna be tired.

You need long days but not necessarily a ton of miles.  If you can only do 5 miles, due to "life", make those miles speed work and run hills.  Avoid the junk miles.  You won't necessarily run hills or do speed work on race day, but your training will make power hiking the hills easy and allow you to run those long down hills with speed and ease.  Go out and run at night with your head lamp,  instead of going to bed at 11pm some night, don the headlamp and run for a number of hours.  Remember you will most likely be running all night in the dark, some of that all alone.  Night running is a skill. Also remember you will most likely be awake for over 30 hours.  I was up from 3:30 Sat morning until 1 pm Sunday.

Most importantly, enjoy the journey........make it fun!  You are about to embark on something very, very few people would ever think of doing, let alone doing it.  It's an incredible thing, I loved all my training and the thrill of chasing such a crazy dream. Throw the clock away.......32 hours on that course is very, very ample time.  Don't let chassing cut off times be a factor.  An average pace of 3.14 MPH gets you to the finish in 32 hours.  Pre race I had written down to "worst" which involved near cut off times and another "best" which I never thought possible.   Well when I got off the trail at 6:45 am I was about 4 miles ahead of my "best" scenario. So time is not a factor for you.  Train in all kinds of weather too. Hot, cold, rainy or whatever, because on raceday you won't have a choice.  I think it paid off last year as the heat didn't kill me.

I hope this helps out Eric, please feel to ask any questions or advice.  I am also going to forward this to Dave Hunter to see if he has anything to add, as he is a wealth of knowledge.  Train hard and you will do well. A favorite quote of mine last year was......."you can't fake a 100 miles", maybe a marathon, but not a 100.   On race day I kept thinking to myself......"6 words, 6 words"  which happen to be "how bad do you want this".
I also thought about all the work I put in to be prepared for this day.......God gave me a wonderful day and I was determined to finish.......just as you will...

peace out my friend


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mid-Race Report


Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar? 
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore? 
Summer was past and the day was past.
Sombre clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch's sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God. 
Robert Frost

   I enjoy the solitude afforded by running. I don't run to escape or isolate myself. If anything, running frees me to ponder what is truly substantial, valuable, and important in life. Each breath becomes a prayer; each footfall the rhythmic accompaniment to vivid memories, each heartbeat a celebration of the abundant blessings bestowed upon me and now preserved and revisited like cherished collectibles in the album of my mind. 
   Sometimes, the journey leads to a replay of memorable scenes representing the highest peaks of excitement and happiness; a few strides more, I might be led -reluctantly- to revisit a shadow-laden trek through the lowest valleys in my life. My running becomes the physical act of recovery from those lows, each step leading me through, out, and then beyond those memories, refocusing on what lies ahead and the opportunities awaiting upon my return to home and family--or perhaps on to another page in the album, another climb to a recollection of a moment bringing joy, a smile or a nostalgic longing for times past. Running affords an opportunity to reconnect - to God, to priorities, to what is truly meaningful in life. It provides the opportunity to sift through each day, leaving aggravation and petty annoyances aside to re-calibrate my perspective on life's big picture. Running is more than fitness, more than exercise, more than a hobby; running is a journey both literally and figuratively, and I never know to where, or to whom, it is going to lead along the way. 
   There is contentment after a run; there is peace; there is a return to center. I often feel prepared and refreshed, and I am often humbled and grateful. Running is a reminder that life's journey is filled with opportunities to build, to create, to encourage, to cherish, to value, to love; its solitary nature is also a reminder that there is an appointed finish when this beating heart will cease, these memories will wither and fade like dry grass, and I will someday stand with no one left but God. 
   I am now closer to the conclusion of my race than I am to the start. But it never was about measuring distance. I know now it's about the journey, and with God's blessing, I still have many more miles ahead. 
   And I am at peace. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Oil Creek 100K 2013 Race Report: The Burkett Brothers Make Family History

The Mega's signature Boulder Field
It's September 28th and I'm trying to survive 27 miles of Central Pennsylvania's most technically demanding boulder scrambles and elevation changes known as the Bald Eagle Megatransect designed by trail masochist Dave Hunter and his accomplice, Brian Newcomer. With my brother Eric by my side, I rely on the camaraderie we have built over a lifetime of adventures together to stay focused and upbeat as my quads, knees, and ankles protest every punishing step of the course. I had typically (and somewhat disturbingly) embraced the challenge for three previous years.
   But today I am miserable. 
   Caught looking ahead to the Oil Creek 100K, our "Superbowl" event of the year in just one week, I was not mentally prepared to take on the Mega. I was hoping to take it easy in preparation for the 62 challenging miles facing me in just seven days. The previous year, my brother and I completed our first 100K at Oil Creek and did so in conservative fashion, finishing in the middle of the pack at 17 hours and 47 minutes.
Oil Creek 2012
Our goal then was to survive, cross the finish line, and obtain the coveted Oil Creek 100K belt buckle. Hoping to improve upon our times and our disposition at the finish in 2013, Eric and I trained harder, ran more miles, and participated in more events this past year. This year, we wanted to compete. But there was one more element added to the mix: instead of running together, this year's Oil Creek 100K would pit older brother (me) against younger brother. Age and Wisdom (and a guy confident enough to wear tights) versus Youth and Speed (and a dude who likes to wear tech shirts with no sleeves). Instead of teaming up together, we were going to run our own races. It was becoming obvious as our training progressed that Eric had a step on me and was running stronger. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that I was likely to hold him back if we tried to run together.  I wasn't thrilled by the prospect of running the Oil Creek 100K by myself and wondered about the potentially demoralizing effects of having him outpace me, especially during the second loop when it takes all a person has to stay mentally focused and motivated through those "low moments". 
The Green Mile
   As I pondered over these concerns that awaited me in just a few days, I was currently frustrated by the fact that the Mega kept demanding my attention right now. Take it easy on the Megatransect and it will grab you, chew you up, and spit you out in a twisted heap of lactic acid, blood, mud, and tattered compression socks. Sure enough, as we reached the Green Mile, the infamous, never-ending expanse of grass leading to the finish of the Megatransect, I found myself fading and Eric took off, crossing the finish line 4 minutes ahead of me. 
   Clearly, I had held him back and my cranky whining at the end probably drove him that much faster to pull away. I was angry with myself. What would happen next week at Oil Creek? We'd find out, and the result was more than either of us could have ever hoped. 


   All week long we watched as weather predictions indicated a rainy day for our race. But as the weekend approached, forecasters began to predict increasingly warmer temperatures for the weekend. The previous year, temperatures hovered in the 20's at the start. This year, it would be warm. Make that hot. Oh, and why not add high humidity in there, too? Indeed, 94% humidity combined with a high of 77 degrees proved to be the demise of many outstanding runners, turning the day's series of ultra-marathons into some very ugly battles of attrition.

   We arrived in Oil City on Friday, dropped our gear at the hotel, and took off towards Titusville with the Burkett Support Crew in tow. As we picked up our packets and race bibs, I was both excited and anxious. Did the Mega take too much out of me? Did I prepare enough this year? Was I mentally prepared to do this alone if Eric took off ahead of me? How would I feel if I jumped ahead and left him behind? Do I have the right gear? Do I even want to do this? 
Brian, Eric, and Rick the Elder
   We got our packets, grabbed some swag for family and support crew and headed out for some pasta. At dinner, we ran into Dave Hunter and Brian Newcomer, the Mega's mad scientists, and the
Newcomer Support Crew. Brian would be attempting his first ever 100 miler. Truly, Dave and Brian and the entire crew are great people and part of our trail family. We had a good time greeting each other and getting pumped about the race. I drew some measure of comfort from knowing that as much suffering as I would be enduring, Brian would be out there enduring even more for much longer. Oddly enough, Brian's attempt would add inspiration to my own race. 
   I broke three rules prior to this ultra event. 
  1. Never change into footgear you haven't tested before an ultra.  Battling the onset of plantar fasciitis in my left foot, I decided to try a pair of heavy inserts to cushion the pounding my feet would take in my almost brand new Brooks Cascadias. I had run about two miles with the inserts prior to Oil Creek. Besides, I reasoned that I could always pull them out on the trail if they didn't work.
  2. Stick with the hydration plan that worked during training. During the summer, Eric introduced me to Osmo, a professional grade hydration formula that would change my entire approach to both hydration and nutrition on race day. I had not really used it before the Mega. I had planned to go exclusively with Heed all day long in my Nathan camelback (as I had all year during training) and use Hammer Gels and Perpetuem prior to reaching for real food at the aid stations. I am never real comfortable with gels and have a fairly low tolerance for them on long runs. But after a combination of Osmo, gels, and chews during the Mega, I felt lousy and bloated all day. Just a day or so prior to Oil Creek, I read the literature on Osmo and found they recommended real food (i.e. not gels) to accompany hydration with their product; otherwise, some bad things could happen. But how much solid food could I take? These things are supposed to be worked out before the race, not the day of the race
  3. Don't experiment with nutrition the day of an ultra. Having run the OC the previous year, I knew there would be times when solid foods just don't go down well, so I gambled on a tip I picked up from  a blog post by Ron Heerkens Jr.and purchased a 6 pack of Boost Plus, a protein/carb shake similar to Ensure. At 320 calories a pop, I thought the mix of protein, sugars, and carbs would take some of the guesswork out of what I chose to eat at the aid stations and might give me better sustained energy than the quick-hitting carb-dumps that chews and gels provide. Oh, and I substituted Fig Newtons for gels just in case. Oh, and just in case I was wrong, I brought all my Hammer products with me, too. I was a neurotic basket case.
   Needless to say, I didn't sleep much the night before the race.  

   As I tried to force myself to relax and settle in for some sleep, I seriously had no idea what a reasonable goal would be. My hope was to keep up with my brother for as long as possible, get off to a faster start than last year, power hike the long, steep uphills and push the pace on the downhills. We also wanted to cut our time at the aid stations as much as possible. Ultimately, I just wanted to improve upon my time of 17 hours and 47 minutes from the previous year. At no point did we consider that the temperature and humidity would impact our race, and I believe those factors caught many runners by surprise. Despite all the unknowns I carried with me on race day, it was the unanticipated intensity of heat and humidity that nearly broke me halfway through the race.


Waiting for the Start
   After a fitful night of sleep, the alarm sounded at 4:30AM and we scrambled to assemble our gear and get dressed. Eric and I slammed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast and I added a Boost for some pre-race calories. Our crew members, Tina (Eric's wife) and Danielle (family friend), drove us to Titusville Middle School while we sat back to wrestle with last minute mental checks and pre-race jitters. The other half of our crew (Mom and Dad) remained asleep and would greet us at Petroleum Center mile 14, which we had hoped to complete in 3 hours. 
   Strangely enough, I was calm and almost resigned to the arduous task that lay ahead. We had joked for several weeks about Eric flying out of the gate and then bonking by loop 2 when I would catch up, and I still thought there was some credibility to that scenario. I knew I wanted to start faster than last year, but as we gathered at the starting line 5 minutes before the official start, I just wasn't sure how I would feel after the Megatransect and hoped I could keep up with Eric at least until mile 14. 
   And with that, the race began. 
   We broke into a nice, quick pace along the bike path to the trailhead. Not wanting to get caught in a logjam of hikers on single track, we pushed closer to the front until we settled into a nice pace behind a group of runners. The air was cool but heavy with moisture and footing was slick. After a few miles, I could hear Eric breathing a little heavily but I was in front of him and feeling...well, great, actually. The inserts were working, I felt fueled and energized, and I was humming along. I pressed hard to reach my goal of arriving at AS#2 in three hours, and Eric was right behind me. I was also driven forward by the unceasing loud chatter of a small group of runners just behind us. Honestly, if conversation is your thing during an ultra, I don't mind small talk. But when the banter is incessant and too loud, it can spoil that sweet spot between mind, body, and trail, and I wanted to separate myself from it. 
Arriving at PC
Eric at PC
   We grabbed some PBJ's at AS#1 and began the climb up the switchbacks to the top of the hill. I was dialed in, focused, and pushing hard. So hard, in fact, that everything just became a blur and I felt a little dizzy but pressed on. We were able to switch off our headlamps but I didn't even think to remove it. A few climbs later, I noticed I was putting a little distance on Eric. All I wanted to do was keep up with him, and I was driven by the fear of letting him down and being too slow. I didn't want to run alone, yet here I was pushing the pace and out in front. I just wanted to shave time off last year's pace to AS#2 to give myself a little room on the return to the middle school. I also began to think that I wanted to have more daylight to work with during the second loop and wanted to get as many miles in as I could while the temperatures were still relatively cool. AS#2 became my focus and I was hoping to make it in 3 hours. As I arrived to the cheers of our support crew and the terrific volunteers at the aid station, I asked my dad to tell me what time it was. I couldn't believe it when he said "about 10 'til 9". Last year, we took 3 hours and 24 minutes. This year, I made it in 2 hours and 46 minutes with Eric right on my heels.  
   Motivated by the good start, I was determined to keep pushing hard. At this point, I thought if I could run a strong first loop, I could run a nice, relaxed pace for the 2nd loop and improve on last year's time. But already the temperature was rising while the humidity was making it tough on my body's cooling system. If I was going to maintain this pace, I had to get out of the aid station fast and keep moving. I grabbed a Boost, drank a cup of Heed, and said goodbye to our crew of Tina, Danielle, Mom, and Dad and began the trek back to Titusville. I was so eager to keep moving I forgot to remove my headlamp and didn't realize I was still wearing it until I began the climb up Heisman Hill away from Petroleum Center. 
Eric leaves PC 
   As temperatures and humidity began to rise, it became very apparent that very little evaporation happening. This meant my core temperature was rising and little cooling was taking place. My clothing and gear were soaked. Somehow, I maintained a strong effort and felt good - the nutrition plan and the Osmo were working! During my training all year long, I remember that one of my mantras for Oil Creek was to simply run for longer stretches before I allowed myself any speedwalk breaks. I was doing better than anticipated, running nearly every stretch until being forced to power walk any sustained climbs. Everything felt runnable and I was dialed in. I think it was during this stretch when the leading 50k runners passed by and I caught up to a group of 100 milers discussing their strategy for surviving the day. As we approached the Boy Scout camp, I stopped to scoop a handful of water from the table to simply experience a change from the Osmo in my pack. I ate a couple of fig newtons and when I felt the familiar twinge of an impending cramp begin to creep into my left calf, I swallowed an electrolyte capsule. 
Cresting Cemetery Hill
   Between the Boy Scout station and the seemingly endless miles to the Miller Farm Station (#3), I don't remember seeing Eric, but I knew he had to be right behind me. My fear of letting him down was dissipating; I was feeling strong, having a good race, and honestly couldn't believe how well it was going, feeling no side effects from the Megatransect the weekend before. Two things were beginning to happen, though, that caused me to take notice. The first was that my heart rate would climb. Not to alarming levels, but higher than I wanted it to be. The second was my head just seemed to be in a dizzying fog. I could think clearly, but when I would slow my pace to climb a hill, I felt a little disoriented and...well, just "foggy". I attributed that sensation to the pace I was trying to maintain, and hoped I would have enough left for the second loop.  I finally hit the dirt road leading down to the Miller Farm station. Sure enough, Eric popped out of the trail right behind me, and I was glad to see him, though any time I had caught a glimpse of him behind me it pushed me to keep moving. At the aid station, we took on some more food: a flat Coke, a few Oreos, a few pretzel sticks, and half a PB&J (I think). I also popped an Endurolyte to ward off cramps which seemed to threaten but never really materialized. Then it was off to climb back up the steps towards Cemetery Hill. I was just ahead of Eric and I figured I might be able to put some distance on him with the hill and Rockefeller's Revenge just ahead. 
   With 6 miles to go until pavement, I wanted to run as much as possible. Again, I found the trail to be sweetly inviting and I pushed any downhills I could. I was still pushing myself hard despite feeling my energy beginning to ebb; the heat was beginning to take a toll. Sure enough, Eric was right behind me again. This time, he passed. As he did, we ran together for awhile and he told me to put my music on; something I rarely do on the trail. "It helps", he said as he trotted on ahead. Reluctantly, I fumbled with my ipod, stuck a headphone in my ear and focused on the music to help me keep pace. The previous year, Eric and I ran a steady pace with a goal of finishing our our first OC 100K. We didn't deviate from the plan and conserved energy. Still, by the second loop, we were both tapped. Today, I not only pushed at a pace that had exceeded my expectations, but I was beginning to wonder what, if anything, I would have left for the second loop. Just before we began the descent to the trailhead and onto the Drake Well loop, Eric pulled ahead but well within sight. 

   I don't know exactly what happened, but as soon as I emerged from the trail to cross the railroad tracks and begin the loop back to TMS, I suddenly felt very, very hot. And very, very sick. 

   I couldn't catch my wind. I became dizzy and clouded and saw Eric begin to pull away in the distance and suddenly I wondered if I was even going to make it back to TMS. My heart rate elevated. The sun, previously screened just enough by the forest canopy, seemed to have a bead directly on my head and I could not cool down. Earlier, I had stopped briefly at a water station to partially fill my empty hydration pack. Now, every sip I took seemed to sit like a brick in my stomach; it wouldn't go down like the Osmo. I was not bonking. I knew what bonking felt like, but this was different. I was in trouble. 
   It took everything I could to minimize any walking on the flat stretch along the creek and bike path. I picked a flag in the distance and forced myself to run to it before taking a walk break. Eric disappeared across the bridge and on the bike path. I picked trees and ran to them, took a break, then picked another set of trees along the path and ran to them again. Finally, I emerged onto the street that would lead to the middle school, but then what? Was I finished? Why did I feel so horrible? Why did it happen so suddenly? I couldn't cool off, I was shaking and running on rubbery legs. As I turned the corner to the aid station, I saw Dave Hunter out of the corner of my eye. Dave said something like, "And here's another Burkett brother! Uh -oh! You don't look so good!" 
   "I don't feel so good", I replied, half expecting Dave's medical background to kick in and have him diagnose the problem and maybe offer some encouragement. 
   "Then YOU FIX IT! YOU FIX IT NOW!" he yelled. 
   That drill sergeant directive snapped me out of my funk. I was not going to quit this thing. I might
Recovering at TMS
have to walk the entire second loop, but I was not going to stop. Any hope of breaking last year's time might have gone out the window right there, but this was now about survival. As I reached the station, our crew was already working on Eric. He didn't look so great, either, and had just arrived a few minutes ahead of me. Mom and Dad looked worried. I hate putting them through that, but there they were offering food. My crew had a bottle of Perpetuem ready to go. I opened my hydration bladder and dumped the remaining water on my head. I was shaking. My complexion was pasty. I drank the Perpetuem, took in a half a grilled cheese, and honestly, I don't remember what else. While Eric was changing out his socks, I grabbed a pair of compression tights and headed to the locker room. Last year, the tights revived my weary legs and gave me some bounce back. This year, I foolishly put them on despite the fact that the trade off for fresh-feeling legs would be more trapped heat. But I was adamant; I wanted the tights because I was hoping to feel revived at some point. And hopefully, the temperatures would drop by evening. 

Prepping for loop 2
Eric back out for loop 2
Eric took off ahead of me. Feeling only slightly
better and still a little dizzy, I left the aid station. I can only thank Mom, Dad, Tina, and Danielle for getting me back out there. As we sat and ate, they worked our legs. They had our fuel ready to go, they offered encouragement and reminded us that we did not want to spend a great deal of time at the aid station before going out for loop 2. The good news? Last year Eric and I finished our first loop in 7hrs 55min. This year, Eric came in at 6:41 and I followed at 6:45. If I could head out now, I might still have a shot at improving on 17:47, but the way I was feeling, that goal seemed to be slipping away. With no respite from the heat or humidity, Eric was the first to leave. Somehow, I followed. Lord, help me. I'm actually going out for a second loop.
   I must have looked bad, because Eric kept telling me to take it easy. He even offered his own Osmo (I had placed mine in a baggie for refilling but put it in the wrong drop bag). But once on the bike path and reeling from the heat, I pushed myself to make up time on Eric. I could see him in the distance and wanted to catch up. Helped by Eric's stop at a port-a-john at the trailhead, I caught up. Once again he was leading but I was right behind him. But I was a straw man. I could not seem to recapture my energy. I was having trouble sustaining a decent pace. I was hot and frustrated and miserable and beginning to feel a deep, indescribable sense of exhaustion. I had even thought of just trying to sleep at one point. It didn't take long for Eric to pull away. I think he turned at one point and said, "I'm going to go. You need to take it easy." I was beyond the ability to feel demoralized and continued chugging ahead. My pace had slowed, but I was running at every opportunity. My power walking up the hills, though, was reduced to a survival slog. 
   I kept hoping for temperatures to drop. Despite the exhaustion and fatigue, I marveled at the beauty of this place. Oil Creek is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful, gorgeous places I have ever been blessed to run. I exchanged places with a few runners in front of me. I was resolved to make it to that fast section just before Petroleum Center when I had hoped to make up some time on the downhills. Minimize effort, use gravity, open up your stride a little, and let one foot fall in front of the other.
   I was pleased to find myself approaching AS#1 at Wolfkiel with a cheerful Tiffany Hrach and other volunteers going out of their way to offer support and assistance. I grabbed some salted potatoes, a few other food items, and then discovered that the volunteers had a basin of towels dipped in cold water. Oh, man what an incredible relief! I soaked my head and felt revived. To top it off, they were handing out icy pops, so I had an orange one and left the station in good spirits despite the steep climb up the switchbacks that awaited. Funny how I can recall the flavor of the icy pop and the chill of the wet towels, but everything else seems a blur.
   The switchbacks sapped me, but once on top, I actually picked up the pace a little. I was able to
Eric Arrives at PC
sustain longer stretches of running and just tried to enjoy the colorful scenery and the sensory delights of a wooded trail in autumn. After surviving Ray's Neverending Hill, I was content to trade places with a few other runners. I'd make up ground and pass them. Then they would make up ground and pass me. Finally, I found that sweet spot and pushed myself to get to Petroleum Center. I had imagined that Eric was long gone by now, and with my GPS watch now dead, I had lost sense of time. I figured I would pull into PC with Eric already well into his second loop. One thing was certain; I wanted to lie down for just a few minutes. I was still fatigued and dizzy; I
Clearing my head at PC; Dad worried 
thought if I had a little time to just sit down for a second or two, I'd be ok. The one fact that kept driving me was that I had pulled into TMS a little over an hour ahead of last year's time, and even with this conservative pace, I was hoping to remain ahead of where I was last year.  With no relief from the heat or the deep sense of exhaustion I was experiencing, I finally made it to Petroleum Center. And there was Eric, being attended to by our crew. He was not so far ahead afterall.

   17 miles to go. And all I wanted to do was lie down. 
   Just one more segment. This was it. We were either going to have the race of our lives, or this entire
day would go down as an "almost", a "woulda, coulda, or shoulda". But when I arrived at PC, I was not in good shape. Eric recalled that I "did not look good. Your eyes were glazed and you were working on autopilot. If I was working as a medic at the aid station, I would have pulled you, or at least made you take 15 or 30 minutes to make sure you were recovered. I can't believe you were in that condition and then caught up to me 6 miles later."
I'm staring; the exhaustion is evident
   I just wanted to lie down. I have to give a shout out to the volunteers at every aid station, but especially to the guys at PC. As soon as I crawled onto the picnic table, 2 guys immediately came over and asked if I was ok. I thought I was alright, but I don't think I was very convincing, because one guy stuck around to talk with me for a few minutes (I have forgotten his name, but thank you!). I believe I was fairly coherent, but I kept staring off into the distance. All I wanted was a Boost, my headlamp, and a few minutes to collect myself. Eric fueled up, grabbed his gear, and was off to climb Heisman Hill back onto the punishing trail. I lingered for just a few minutes longer until the food seemed to kick in. Suddenly, I was ready to go (relatively speaking). After a few taunts, whistles, and jeers from my crew about my tights, I let them know I was feeling fine by skipping across the parking lot to the trailhead. I realize it's difficult for this 48 year old guy to rock a pair of tights, but I was definitely beyond the point of caring about fashion and was relying on the compression to get my tired legs through the last, difficult section. Besides, anyone who runs, hops, and skips over rocks, logs, and bushes in the forest has a little Peter Pan in them, anyway. I was simply embracing it.

   This was the part I had dreaded in the weeks leading up to the race.

   Heading into the final section, with Eric out of sight and ahead of me, I was wondering how my morale would hold up. Like I said before, I run almost exclusively on my own for training, but nearly every race event is run with my brother and we push each other through those "low" moments. Surprisingly, I felt great. My will to finish was strong. My energy levels were good if short-lived, and I knew I was ahead of schedule from the previous year. There was still plenty of daylight left and I made it a goal to try and reach the Miller Farm Aid Station by dark. I ran and power walked mostly alone for this stretch, and had the very unusual experience of catching a very strong whiff of a pungent odor, almost like a dead animal or rotting garbage smell. It was strong enough to make me look around the trail for a dead deer or something. Based on the descriptions I've heard from others, I wonder if I hadn't been in close proximity to a black bear.
   I messed around with my iPod again, just looking for a distraction to focus on during this long stretch.  Prior to the Cow Run Shelter and the Boy Scout camp, I began cramping and had to work it out of my calves. I took some electrolyte tabs, stayed hydrated, and ate a honey stinger waffle. It was still very warm and muggy and the temps weren't offering the kind of relief I had hoped for. Except for the occasional bout of cramping on this stage, I was not in much pain. I had popped probably two Ibuprofen the entire race, cautious about the use of NSAIDS, but I really hadn't needed more. What was holding me back was more of a very heavy, deep, almost indescribable fatigue that seemed to blanket my soul. I wasn't physically hurting, but the engine was misfiring, if that makes sense. I couldn't shake it, but after climbing Heisman Hill, I automatically began to jog. At this point, my pace was slower, but my goal was to alternate jogging with walk breaks--anything to try and improve upon last year's pace. I just didn't want to settle for another 17:47 finish.
   I was mostly alone from Heisman Hill to the Boy Scout camp. I was surprised, thinking other runners would surely pass by. I sure wasn't tearing it up out here but remained focused on alternating running, then recovering with a bit of walking, then running again. I knew my brother was ahead; I figured I was not going to see him again until the finish line. And that was ok. I was giving max effort, leaving nothing behind, no regrets. I passed through the Boy Scout camp and exchanged greetings with them as I jogged through the shelter site. I was mentally prepared for the fact that the Miller farm was still many miles away, so I didn't suffer the morale hit that others describe when reaching this point. I tried to sustain my jogging by finding a comfortable pace, but "comfortable pace" no longer existed. I drew consolation from the mantra, "every step I take is one closer to the tape (finish)".  After another mile or so, I saw a guy in an orange, sleeveless shirt behind a group of 100 milers who were maintaining a very conservative pace (God bless them). I couldn't believe my eyes. Was that Eric? Awesome! He hadn't noticed me creeping up behind him. Energized, I broke into a brisk pace to try and catch up. Sure enough, I shocked the heck out of him when I suddenly pulled up behind him. It was just a little past dark and headlamps were on. He humorously muttered a disparaging remark about the fact that he didn't expect to see me after PC.  We would at least arrive at AS#3 together, and I was pumped at having caught up to him. I might have even passed him on the road going down to the aid station itself. I found myself running next to a 100 miler. She asked me if we were going the right way to the aid station, and I said, "Sure. You remember this from the first loop, right?" She laughed and said something about conserving brain power just so she could remember the names of her kids.
   At Aid Station #3, we fueled up. I was running on empty again, and wished I could have had a Boost which was proving to be an excellent nutrition strategy for me. Eric told me to ask the volunteers for one, and to my surprise, they had them! One of the volunteers looked around and indicated that I might have had the last one. Eric was ready to leave almost as soon as he got to the aid station. When I began drinking the Boost, it wasn't going down very well and felt like it wanted to revisit my esophagus, so I sat down in one of the plastic chairs and nursed it until it was gone. Meanwhile, Eric looked over and said, "I'm going to take off. Take it easy, alright?" I told him I'd be right behind him but I wanted to finish drinking my calories. I knew Cemetery Hill and Rockefeller's Revenge were lying in wait, ready to drain the last drop of energy I had, and I wasn't looking forward to the climbs. I figured Eric had to be getting tired, too, and thought there might be some chance of catching up to him on the climbs.

   It would be the last I would see of him until the finish line. 
The Homestretch

The last 8.4 miles of this course begin with two climbs up hills that are challenging in their own right. But throw in the fact that you've already completed 53 miles, and in my case, run the first 31 a little too hard in the pervasive heat and humidity, and you might as well be climbing Mt. Olympus. It is also difficult mentally because you know you're on the home stretch. By anticipating the finish, it seems to take so much longer to get there. Compounded by darkness, a weary body, and unsure footing, this last section becomes an eternity where one loses track of time and place and distance.
   It was all I could do to climb. I would not be making any time on this section; the hills stole all I had and left only the sweaty husk of a weary trail runner who had nothing left to give on this night. But knowing that the best option for potential recovery was to simply press forward, I tagged along behind a group of 100 milers; I think one was the same young lady with whom I had a chat on the road to Miller Farm, and the other was a 60+ year old with his pacer. I knew something about his age from the conversation I overheard, and I was inspired by his effort. But I was content to hang with them and maintain a very conservative pace which consisted mostly of power walking interrupted by jogging on the levels and downhills. It was all I had left.
   I remained behind this group longer than I wanted to, but I didn't have the energy to pass them. At one point, though, the girl in front of me allowed me to pass (she had become my unofficial coach. When she ran, I ran. When she walked, I walked. Now she was forcing me to move on and I would have to coach myself). Sure enough, there were some sections of trail where I was able to find just enough firepower to break into a steady jog and maintain it. Then, empty. Repeat.
   I lost track of time. Meanwhile, Eric misread his watch and thought he was blowing his opportunity for a PR this year. Panicked, he began to push hard the last 4 miles. As for me, I resigned myself to the fact that I might have run too hard the first loop and was losing time now. The best I could hope for would be to hopefully finish around 17:05 or 17:10. This would not be as big an improvement as I had hoped, but it would have to do. I consoled myself with the humor found in alerting a couple of runners ahead of me. I dimmed my headlamp and ran off the trail for a few yards to find a suitable tree to serve as a place to empty my bladder. When I did, the crashing noise caused the runners in front of me to stop and peer in my direction, their bright headlamps peering into the woods like searchlights on a prison break. Perhaps they thought there was a bear behind them. Cruel, I know, but I did nothing to make them think differently. I crashed back onto the trail and began running.
   At some point I reached the bench and began the hard right turn that would eventually lead to the trailhead. Taking advantage of any opportunity to allow gravity to pull me downhill, I broke into running when I could, passing a couple of runners and catching up to yet another 100 miler. We chatted a bit and before I knew it, we found ourselves dumped out at the bridge and onto the Drake Well Loop section--the real home stretch. We talked for awhile about our previous running endeavors and he explained he was probably going to drop out of his race; it just wasn't a good day for him, but he had a great perspective and was pleasant enough. I asked him what time it was. He said "9:13pm".
   Thinking I would have to hustle to get back to TMS before 11pm, I couldn't believe my ears. I asked him to repeat exactly what he saw on his watch.
   I cannot describe the conflicted feeling of elation knowing I was going to exceed my goal, but not having enough energy to sustain a last dash to the finish. It is difficult to articulate the incredible sense of accomplishment and knowing you could do even better, but not having the strength or energy to muster anything more. As we continued down the road, I explained to my trail buddy that I would have to leave him, because I wanted to give everything I could to get back to TMS because it looked like I was about to PR in this event. He congratulated me and we parted ways as I went back to the strategy of running towards flags or trees and then taking a walk break. This worked well and I pushed past the Oil Well with its recorded soundtrack blaring over the speaker. As I approached the bridge, I adamantly established that I would not walk across that bridge. I ran up the small rise, made the left onto the bridge, and kept running. I tried to slow down at the railroad overpass to keep going. And then I came upon the long straightaway of the bike path. "I have to make it", I thought. Not yet knowing that Eric had stretched his lead ahead of me, I held onto some kind of hope of spotting him just ahead. Eric was nowhere in site along that long ribbon of asphalt that never seems to end. Eventually, I saw the road ahead where two of our crew, Tina and Danielle, were standing and cheering. As soon as I emerged from the bike path, I had to walk. They were a great encouragement at that point, letting me know I only had a little more to go. I said something about just needing to walk a little more and then I would cut it loose and run it in to the finish line.
   And that's what I did.
Eric at Finish (15:22)
   Spotting the middle school and then turning the corner into the flashing runway lights towards the finish line, I was sprinting with everything I had left. The fact is, there was nothing left. I was running purely on adrenaline and whatever emergency reserves the body could muster.
   As I crossed the finish line, I nearly teared up. I was overcome with emotion. Setting out with a goal to beat last year's time of 17:47, my brother and I destroyed it, set PR's for ourselves, and made family history, coming in at 15:22 and 15:40 respectively. We crushed our previous time by over 2 hours.

Post-Race Notes:

Bringing it home! (15:40)
   Eric's finish was good enough for 16th place overall, and I finished 18th. Of the 82 runners who began the 100K, about 55 finished. The course is tough; the heat and humidity were brutal, and I saw many runners far better than I succumb to the elements prior to completion of their races.
Danielle, Tina, Eric, Rick, Mom, Dad
   The 2013 Oil Creek 100K was a climactic race for both my brother and me--and for our family as well. Initially heralded as the race between the "Burkett Brothers", Eric did what he had been doing all throughout our training- he was able to sustain at the end when I "faded". But it really didn't matter; all the training and determination throughout the previous year leading up to this race had paid off for both of us in a huge way. I feel tremendously blessed to not only run through all Creation but to still be able to compete and see improvement with effort. I am tremendously blessed for the support of my family, from my wife Denise and my daughter Ashley, who both tolerate my long hours on the run, to Mom and Dad B, who are the heartbeat of "Team Burkett". Special thanks to Tina and Danielle, (they both completed their first Rothrock Trail Challenge this past year) who could not have been more efficient, supportive, and encouraging all weekend. Also a shout out to Dave Hunter, whose friendship, advice, and Megatransect course prepared me and whose halftime hollering rallied me to keep going; to Brian Newcomer who is a true brother who constantly inspires and motivates and amazes; and to legends Jeff Lister, Dave Lister, and Ashley Moyer who gave of their time to hang with our family and to greet us both at the finish line. Being cheered on by 3 athletes who are as kind, as supportive, and as selfless as they are elite in the field of trail running is something extraordinary and special. Thank you!
Eric, Ashley, and David
Exhausted but elated
   Tom Jennings and his crew of volunteers are simply magnificent. Oil Creek has a very unique, family atmosphere where every runner is made to feel most welcome and enthusiastically supported. Oil Creek provides a canvas of autumn color and natural beauty upon which scenes of personal struggle and triumph are painted. It is pure poetry... and I am already looking ahead to another visit.