Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Monday, October 17, 2011

First Ultra: 2011 Oil Creek 50K Race Report

It's been a long road
gettin' from there to here.
It's been a long time
but my time is finally near.

Some Background:

Driving down to Titusville, PA on Friday, the day before my first ultra, I shared something with with my wife Karen and daughter Kim that really helped put it all in perspective for me.  A week earlier, on Friday, September 30th (when I had just gotten excited because my race day was within the long-range weather forecasts) a group of international competitors in Sicily had done an Ironman.  Saturday, October 1st, they did another one.  Sunday they did a third.  As we were driving across NY state five days later they were doing their eighth.  In the morning when I ran my race they would do their ninth, and on Sunday while I was recovering, those who were still in the competition would finally complete their Deca Ironman.

A lot of people wonder why I would want to run a 31-mile foot race on rugged mountain trails.  I guess I wanted to start with the story above because, as monumental as this was for me, people are out there doing far more monumental things - running across deserts, huge mountain ranges, whole continents - and most people who don't do these things are capable of doing far more than they realize.

That said, it was by no means easy for me to get to this point.  This was the culmination of a five-year pursuit of renewed physical fitness.  Five years ago I was literally concerned that my heart might explode before I finished a 10-minute jog on my old treadmill.  Three years ago I discovered a love of trail running.  Two years ago I learned that races like Oil Creek existed and it became my goal to run one when I was 50 years old (which happened this past March).

The story of those last two years is too long to include here, but is one of hard work and slow progress, overcoming injuries and disappointment - choosing, in the face of every setback, to believe that persistence would ultimately be rewarded.  Now as I drove through some of the most beatiful northeastern fall scenery I had seen in some time, I felt confident that I was finally ready.

Training - The Plan:

After a rocky 2010 featuring my long-term bout of plantar fasciitis, a pretty bad ankle sprain that took months to heal, a DNS at the 2010 Green Lakes Endurance Runs, and a complete break from running for the final three months of the year to try to get everything really healed, I started training again in January.

The plan had been to follow a published 'base building' training plan that would carry me into May, coast at base mileage for a few weeks and do a couple of shorter Spring trail races, then launch into a 16-week 50K training plan that would have me peaking for this race.  If all went well I would have run about 1000 miles by race day (kind of weak by ultrarunning standards).

Training - The Reality:

As usual, my body had other plans.  By early April I had about 300 miles in the bank when I started developing sharp pain in my right shin.  I tried babying it and continuing for a while but it just kept getting worse.  Finally I saw an orthopedist and had a bone scan that revealed a significant stress reaction under way in my right tibia - with smaller areas lit up elsewhere in both legs and feet.

This took me out of both of my spring races and from the second half of May through almost the end of July I couldn't run at all.  No impact exercise allowed!

Fortunately as it turns out, they did a poor job of explaining to me that walking is considered an impact exercise.  I kept my training going by walking as much as possible - including long trail hikes on the weekends - and I did long elliptical trainer workouts to keep my aerobic fitness up.  This was all 'relative rest' and the pain in my shin slowly subsided even while I maintained this activity level.  By the end of July I was able to start mixing some running back in.

I celebrated that by doing a 27-mile trail run/hike on Aug. 4 in which I ran pretty much everything runnable.  That was actually my first ultra-distance effort and convinced me that Oil Creek was still possible.  From there I fell into a cycle of long, hard efforts on weekends with just rest and a few short recovery runs or elliptical sessions during the week.  I alternated between 'easy' long efforts of maybe 12 miles one weekend and 20+ milers the next, with as much on hilly single-track trail as possible.  This wasn't standard ultra training, but it was what I could do.

Training peaked two weeks before race day with a 25-miler that included 4600' of elevation gain completed in just over 7 hours.  That felt great and recovery was pretty easy, so I really felt like I was as ready as I could be.  Given that Oil Creek was 'only' six more miles and had less elevation gain per mile, I started thinking it was possible for me to go sub-8:00 at the race - and that became my goal.

The Race:

I will see my dream come alive at last.
I will touch the sky.

Race day promised more perfect fall weather - if a little warmer than I'd have hoped.  High temperatures in the mid-70's were predicted.  The skies were clear and the morning air crisp as we arrived at race headquarters at the Titusville Middle School at about 6:15 for check-in.  It was still dark, but I could expect some light by the 7:00 start.  50K-ers have the luxury of sleeping in.  The 100-milers had started at 5:00.

Actually mine had been a fitful and interrupted night of sleep like a lot of people seem to experience before this kind of big event.  Altogether I'd probably slept for five or six hours though, and with the adrenaline I had going it would be enough.

My last remaining equipment decision was whether to carry a light at the start knowing that if I needed it at all it would only be for a short time and then I would have to carry it until I made it to crew-accessible AS2.  The plan was to give it to Karen at the last minute if the morning had brightened enough when we lined up.  It was great to have Karen and Kim there with me.

I was dressed and equipped pretty much as I had been for all of my long training runs: my Brooks Cascadia 6 shoes with Dri-max socks and a pair of gaiters, a pair of loose, hiking cargo shorts over skin-tight sports underwear (with plenty of Body Glide under that), a tech t-shirt (my brand new Big Dog Trail Runners shirt from ultralist 'dean' Lazarus Lake), and my Nathan HPL 020 hydration pack loaded with water, S-Caps, and a few first-aid supplies.  Also a little belt pouch to carry some fuel.

Fueling was one of my primary concerns going in.  I had found on my long runs that I start losing any desire to eat or drink at around 18-20 miles.  I could go ahead and stop taking anything at that point in a 25-mile training run and get it done, but I fully expected it would be a problem if I tried to go six more miles like that.  My plan was to carry some food (Honey Stinger Waffles!!) and use the water-only aid stations positioned about every three miles between the main aid stations as cues to eat.  I would graze the main aid stations for a little protein and whatever else looked good.

We're off!  Start to AS1 (7.1 miles):

A few minutes before 7:00 we were herded out the back of the school to the starting line.  I was near the back of the herd, so didn't hear any last-minute instructions from RD Tom Jennings if there were any.  There was just a sudden blast of an air horn and the pack started moving forward.

This was it!  Thirty-one miles of unfamiliar trail and terrain lay ahead.

I opted to keep the light (a hand-held Fenix).  It was easy to see without it in the open, but I was concerned that it would be much darker once we got onto the wooded single-track, and I am very paranoid about ankle-turning hazards on the trail after last year's experience.

The first mile-and-a-half were on a paved bike path.  I had originally planned to follow some advice from Karl King to walk the first ten minutes of the race in order to activate muscular fat-burning before the harder effort, but the pre-race information had so emphasized the difficulty of passing once we entered the single-track that I wanted to make sure I got ahead of anyone who was planning to walk the course.  So I settled into an easy jog and soon found myself almost alone as I left the walkers behind and the runners took off and left me.  That seemed about right.

On entering the single-track I soon started passing quite a few of the back-of-the-pack runners.  As advertised, the trail wasn't wide enough for easy passing, but everyone I came up behind was quick to offer to step aside and allow me by.  Of course I did the same for anyone who wanted to get by me.

Within a couple of miles I fell in with a small group of runners going at about my pace, including one young woman named Tiffany who I would stay with most of the way to AS2.  Tiffany was a local who knew the trail well and kept our little group informed on what was coming next.  Chatting with her made these early miles go pretty fast.  According to my GPS we were maintaining a pace between 14:30 and 15:00 through this section.

After the initial climb this section was mostly just some nice, rolling trail.  We reached the first water-only aid station and I ate a waffle as planned.  About three miles later we negotiated the descent into AS1 at Wolfkiel Run.  A slew of smiling volunteers offered us anything we needed.  I browsed the food table, grabbed a half PBJ and a couple of potato chips, and headed right out munching the PBJ as I went.  Tiffany soon followed.

AS1 to Petroleum Center AS2 (13.9 miles):

Leaving AS1 you immediately climb 'Switchback Mountain' - the first climb with a reputation on this course.  It was a relatively steep climb, but only about 300'.  Most of my long training runs had been on a trail with several 600'-800' climbs like this, so I was well prepared to power up this one.

Shortly after leaving the aid station I caught up to and passed an older gentleman a lot of the other runners seemed to know.  I heard more than one call the man 'Coach'.  I would see Coach a couple more times before the day was over.

Tiffany hung back with Coach during the climb and then caught up to me at the top.  Our little group from the last section slowly re-formed, with a few changes, and the miles continued to flow by pretty easily.  The morning remained crisp and sunny, and the scenery was beautiful.  We ran when we could, walked when we had to - keeping in mind how many hills lay ahead of us at this point - and chatted easily.  This was the first ultra for most of us and we talked a lot about training, equipment, and lessons learned.

As we approached the descent into the valley that would lead us past the old oil derricks at Benninghoff Farm enroute to AS2 shortly after, Tiffany (who had been letting me lead most of the way) asked if it would be ok if she took the lead for a while as she really liked to stretch out on downhills.  She promised not to leave me behind, but I said, "If you do, you do."  She was ready to kick it up a notch and slowly pulled away from me and the rest of our group.

We all made it to the derricks and the other two women I'd been hanging with started to take off a little on this final flat section before the aid station.  I held my steady pace and let them go, though I kept them in sight for quite a while as we negotiated a few more little rolling hills, a road crossing and finally turned onto the dirt road leading to AS2 at Petroleum Center.

Petroleum Center AS2:

Petroleum Center is the only crew-accessible aid station on the course.  As I came within sight of it I immediately saw Karen and Kim getting excited.  Kim ran out to meet me while Karen snapped a few pictures.

It's hard to say enough good things about the aid stations in this race without overextending an already long race report.  Each had a theme.  Signs placed well up the course ahead of the aid stations both signalled that you were getting close and started communicating the theme.  AS1's had been sort of business-like, with signs honoring past race winners and record holders.  AS2 was 'Funky Town' and had a disco party atmosphere.  AS3 would have a pink flamingo motif.  All offered a huge variety of snacks and real food.

I had planned to take a little more time at AS2.  I grabbed half a grilled cheeese sandwich, sat down at a picnic table and visitied with my 'crew' for a minute or two while I ate.  Then I had Karen see to getting my hydration pack refilled while I worked on changing into a clean pair of Dri-max socks.

I saw Tiffany on the far side of the aid station from us and gave her a wave (not sure whether she saw).  She would exit the aid station before me and that was the last time I saw her.  I would end up running most of the return leg by myself (which is ok for me because I'm comfortable just spending time in my own head).

Physically, I was feeling pretty good at this point (about 14 miles) but knew that the tough part was yet to come.  There were still many miles to go and the return sections of the course had a reputation for being harder.

I took advantage of the restroom (I almost never feel the need while I run no matter how much I drink).  It looked like I was doing fine with hydration.  Then it was time to put on my pack, say goodbye to Karen and Kim and get moving again.  I grabbed a handful of potato chips and a no-bake cookie on the way out.

Section 3, Petroleum Center to Miller Farm Road AS3 (22.6 miles):

The trail out of AS2 starts in the same way as the trail out of AS1: with a major climb.  I was still strong at this point and started catching and passing a few others.  Shortly I found myself behind 'Coach'.  I was just thinking of staying behind him when he stepped aside and motioned me through.  I made the top soon after that.

The section immediately after that climb is one of the most runnable on the course.  I was starting to tire and couldn't really take full advantage of it, but kept moving pretty well.  Miles definitely started taking longer though.

A little further on I was walking up a grade when someone came up behind me and I moved aside.  It was Coach.  As he went by he said, "Don't worry.  You'll probably pass me back." 

"It won't bother me a bit if I don't."

"That's the right attitude to have."

And it's a good thing I had that attitude, because I never saw Coach again.

I just kept moving, running everything flat or downhill and walking any uphill more than a few yards long.  I passed the first water-only aid station and remembered to eat a waffle.  The course started weaving through hollows as it followed the ridgeline.  Much of the trail was wider in this section as it followed various cross-country ski trails and what looked like old access roads of some kind.

Eventually I made the next aid station at the Cow Run shelters.  This had been advertised as another water-only aid station, but as I approached I started seeing signs.  The trail entered the shelter area through a band of folks hanging out at a campfire who greeted me and informed me there was food available by the restroom.

I checked that out and found a table with a few snacks and a drink cooler with some sports drink.  I chose a small cup of pretzels to munch and then had a little of the sports drink.  It was lemon-lime Heed, diluted, I think.

I have read many opinions about Heed, many of them strongly negative.  Heed is ubiquitous at these races because Hammer Nutrition sponsors many of them, to their great credit, and I had had some before.  This time, it tasted mostly of chemicals - sort of like the old, yellow, listerine - and I would be tasting it again every time I burped for the next several hours.  Not the best decision I made during this race.

The trail from Cow Run trended downhill, but started getting muddy and rockier.  Still, I made better time on most of this section and passed a few people again.  Eventually it bottomed out right beside the Titusville - Oil City Railroad tracks at the bottom of the valley.

A little better course knowledge would have saved me some disappointment here, as I started thinking I must be getting close to AS3.  However, the trail soon turned away from the railroad and passed a sign posted by the race that said "Ida Tarbell's Revenge".  My history is a little fuzzy, but I believe Ida Tarbell was a journalist that waged a campaign to have John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company declared a monopoly.  Anyway, Ida's 'revenge' turned out to be a long climb back up to the top of the ridge, regaining most of the elevation I had come down since Cow Run.  This climb was my first serious mental low point.

One foot in front of the other eventually got me to the top, and then the trail turned steeply downhill again.  Once again I found that I did have something left to take advantage of it and I made up some time as I (finally) broke out onto Miller Farm road and followed the course markings downhill to the aid station.

Section 4, Miller Farm Road AS3 to Finish:

'Cause I've got faith of the heart.
I'm going where my heart will take me.
I've got faith to believe
I can do anything.

The aid station at Miller Farm Road was a welcome sight.  According to my race planning if I made it here by 5:30 I felt I had a good chance at my sub-8:00 goal, with only about six more miles of trail to negotiate before running it out to the finish on the flat in the valley and two-and-a-half hours to do it all in.  I arrived at AS3 pretty much right on target.  That meant I wanted to get in and out quickly.

I was warmly greeted and someone immediately offered to fill my pack for me.  I had anticipated needing to top off here as the day was getting warmer and indeed my pack was starting to feel light on the way in here (reassuring me that I was still hydrating well).  I handed the pack off and turned to the food table where more volunteers rattled off a bunch of choices to me until they finally got to 'pizza' near the end of the list.  Danged if that didn't sound good and - hey - it's traditional ultra food, right?  I had to go for it.  They handed me a cheese slice just as my full hydration pack came back, so I immediately slung it on, shouted out a thank you to everyone and started out.

A bunch of them lied and told me I was looking good.  And speaking of lies...

AS3 was no different than any other, in that you drop in and then you have to climb out.  The big climb right here was variously known as Cemetery Hill or Dead Man's Hill.  A race photographer was positioned at the top of the climb.  I hammed a little for the camera and chatted with him as I passed.  He told me that there were 'only' eight more miles to go and that they were mostly downhill.

"Well, there's a little more uphill," he said.

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just estimating the difficulty of the next section without taking already-tired legs into account!  But after a very short downhill I passed a sign that read, "Rockefeller's Revenge."

"How did I get caught in the middle of this?" I wondered.

That was the last major climb, but by this time anything uphill seemed tough, and it seemed like there were a lot of hills - way more than I expected from studying the course map and way more than the photographer's comment prepared me for mentally.  I really had to resist the temptation to just stop and rest for a while in the middle of every climb.  The trail also started to seem very repetitive, and I pretty much just wanted to be done.  The first four miles of this section were another mental low point.

Inexplicably though, I perked up again at around mile 27 and started to run well.  I think I was starting to smell the barn.  I knew that the last part of the trail section was downhill, and that when I started hearing the distinctive sound of the Olin 'hit and miss' engine running at the Drake Well Museum I was almost there.  I was sure I was hearing it long before I actually could, but when there was no more mistaking it I was thrilled.  I continued to run well all the way to the end of the trail.

Just a few hundred yards from the trailhead I was passing a guy picking his way through a rocky section when suddenly he said, "You're Pat, aren't you?"  It was lister Eric Sherman, who I had exchanged some e-mails with before the race.  Eric was running his second attempt at the 100K here and had started an hour ahead of me.  I hadn't expected to catch him but unfortunately he was having a bad race (stomach issues) and would drop at the end of the first loop.  He spotted my Big Dog shirt that I'd told him to look for.

Eric asked if I'd mind some company for the rest of the loop.  I was grateful for the chance to spend a little time with him.  We left the trail and started into the small loop around the museum area, running at first.  However, I soon found that my legs were nearly done and had to slow to a walk.  Eric had been walking a lot and was content to go at whatever pace suited me at this point, so we walked and talked until I felt like running a little again, and alternated like this the whole way around the museum and back up the bike path toward town.

I was pretty sure that I could still make my sub-8:00 at this point and Eric was very encouraging, checking his watch and assuring me that I had it.  As we left the bike path Eric encouraged me to take off and have my personal  moment of glory running it in from there.  It was a short run up the street, a right turn onto the bridge across Oil Creek, and then a left back onto the Middle School bus drop-off road where we had started.

As soon as I made the turn coming off of the bridge I saw Karen and Kim jumping up and getting excited.  A few other people were around and everyone cheered me on as I trotted up the sidewalk and made the final turn into the back of the school to the finish.

When the race clock came into view all I could really see was that the first digit was a '7' and that was good enough for the time being.  I ran across the line in classic two-hand overhead fist pump fashion, got a big smile and a handshake from RD Tom Jennings, and then immediately noticed an empty chair - with the last guy who had passed me sitting in a chair right next to it.  Suddenly I had the overwhelming desire to sit down!

Soon Tom brought us both our finishers' awards and congratulated us again.  Wow!  Could it get any better than this?

Results, aftermath, lessons learned:

I got my sub-8:00, finishing officially at 7:53:48.  This placed me 56th out of 116 50K finishers (127 starters).  This was better than I had any right to hope for on my weak training and I am absolutely thrilled with the result!

Tiffany turned out to have been Tiffany Hrach, of Meadville, PA - who kept her afterburners lit and finished at 7:15:20.  Great job, Tiffany!

And unless I miss my guess, 'Coach' had to have been Jim Benson, 73 years young from Oil City, PA.  Jim finished five places ahead of me in 7:37:59.  Seems Coach knows a thing or two and I was well and truly 'schooled.'  (And no, it doesn't bother me a bit.)

After the race, I was toast - but happy toast.  We loaded me into the passenger seat of our minivan and Karen made a couple stops on the way back to the hotel - for chocolate milk (the recovery drink of champions) and ice for an ice bath.  Both helped immensely and after cleaning up I was able to go out for dinner and even eat pretty well.

The next day I was a little slow and stiff, but was able to follow along on a little one-mile walk on an easy trail through some old-growth forest with Karen and Kim at a place called "Heart's Content."  Quite appropriate as I think about it now.  It was another gorgeous day and I was just pretty high on life.

I'd had a stratchy throat for a day and a half before the race, but hadn't said anything about it because there was no way I wasn't doing the race and I didn't want Karen worrying about me.  The cold started taking firm hold on me that next day and kind of knocked me on my butt for a couple of days.  I guess that's pretty classic.

I can't say I learned many profound lessons, but here are a few not-so-profound ones:

  • This is just a fantastic sport, and I can do it.
  • The long run (or even walk) is everything, I think, when it comes to finishing these races.  You can get by without a lot else if you're getting your long runs in on similar terrain.
  • I didn't talk much about electrolytes above. I had a half-dozen S-Caps with me on the trail and took three of them at various points. Given I seemed to gravitate to salty food choices at the aid stations I'd apparently been a little conservative on the S-Caps. I feel that worked out ok.
  • Little hills feel a lot like big ones after enough of them have ganged up on you.
  • Avoid lemon-lime Heed late in a race (at least for me).
  • Next time, just hang with Coach  (if you can) when you first catch up to him.


I can't close without saying a round of thank-you to everyone who helped me make this happen.  I received much advice and encouragement from members of the Dartmouth Ultra List and the Yahoo Ultrarunning Group - too many great people to name, but thank you all!

Thanks again to the Oil Creek 100 Trail Runs, Oil Creek State Park, and the Town of Titusville for hosting this great event.  Huge thanks to all of the dedicated volunteers that make the race go.

Thanks to my stalwart 'crew' - my wife Karen and daughter Kim.  It really meant a lot to see your smiling faces at the turnaround and the finish, and you both took great care of me after the race.  Karen, thank you for indulging my running obsession the way that you do.  Karen was behind the camera most of the weekend so ended up kind of invisible in the record.  She's never invisible to me!

Finally, I thank God for this beautiful world that I have to run in, and for the health and strength I've been given to be able to do this.  He is my constant training partner.


    1. What a great race report! :)Congratulations on your finish and on meeting your goal!

    2. That sounded like a great race and experience. Congratulations on making your time goal! And just finishing, for that matter. I was pretty thrilled when I finished my first 10 mile race (a run around Cazenovia Lake), I didn't come down for days!

    3. It was great running with you! Part of me wish I had kept running with you - I couldn't believe I had that much get up and go... believe me though, I was pretty much out of oomph by the middle of section 4. I'm so glad you did so well and it was great running with you! I hope we see you again next year, or at some other races!


    4. Pat, I followed you and Tiff into AS #2. I really liked our pace going into AS 2, though the stairs right before it were crazy hard on my cramping legs. I think you and I did some back and forth going through section 3 while my legs were junk.

      Congrats on your race!

    5. Great stuff, Pat. Thanks for the mention of Jim Benson. He was a great inspiration to many of us in the running community in Oil City.

    6. Thank you, Chad. Until you're note I was not aware that Jim had passed, and am saddened to learn of it. I had a nice e-mail exchange with him right after this report was published. He seemed a classic gentleman and, yes, an inspiration.

    7. I have run OC 100 three times (the 50k) and the man you call "Coach" is/was one of my best friends. We met when I was in high school just running 5ks back in 1999-2000. He inspired me to do many great things with my running. First of which was a 12 mile run. He kicked my butt...he was in his 60s and I was in my teens. He coached me through my first marathon and my first ultra, as well as, qualifying and training for Boston Marathon. Jim was a hero to many of us. I am so happy to hear that he was an inspiration to you too. I hope you are still ultra running and whenever you "think" you are too tired to train, just think of Jim. He is running beside you. We didn't call him "Coach" for nothing. Good luck in your running endeavors!