Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Friday, September 13, 2013

2013 Pine Creek Challenge (Crew/Pacer Report)

'T-Rock' getting it done on the Pine Creek Rail Trail
(Photo credit - Brian Newcomer)
On Saturday, September 7th (and into Sunday the 8th) I had the opportunity and privilege to crew and pace for my friend Tiffany Hrach (pronounced "Rock") in her first attempt to complete a 100-mile ultramarathon at the Pine Creek Challenge.

This story is from my point of view. If you're more interested in a race report from the runner's perspective you'll find that on Tiff's blog, "Hrach Garden."

Tiff is one of those neat stories of running friendships that you hear about in ultrarunning. We met on the trail at the Oil Creek 50K in October, 2011. It was the first ultra for both of us. We connected early in the out-bound leg of the race and ran together for maybe seven or eight miles before she decided to push on ahead of me. After the race I found her on DailyMile and we became friends there - e-mailing each other encouragement from time to time. We bumped into each other again at last year's Laurel Highlands 50K. When I learned that she was doing the 100M at Pine Creek I volunteered right away to help her if she needed crew or pacers.

There were selfish reasons to do it. The race had been on my radar screen for a while and I was interested in checking it out (and Wellsboro, PA is really not very far from Syracuse, NY). I also thought it would be fun to try a long run at night - something I hadn't really done before.

...and that, come to think of it, is as good a segue into the story as I can come up with...

Bleary-eyed at Blackwell

I dug my phone out of my pocket, still blinking sleep out of my eyes, and checked the time - a little after 1:00 A.M. I peered into the darkness out the side window of our mini-van again to reassure myself that the new arrivals were not my people. The muted sounds of conversation and activity that had woken me continued as the handlers and aid station staff saw to the needs of the newly-arrived runner. I couldn't be quite sure, but it looked like Gene, the older runner in the yellow shirt who'd been struggling with nausea when I last saw him almost twenty miles ago. I really hoped I was right.

Karen's regular, slow breathing told me that she was still sleeping soundly on the floor beside me. We were parked near the the Blackwell aid station, in Blackwell, PA, at mile 79.1 on the 100-mile course of the Pine Creek Challenge. Karen and I were crewing for first-time 100-miler Tiffany Hrach, and I would be pacing her from here to the finish.

We'd last seen Tiff and her first pacer, Brian, about two hours previously at the Slate Run AS some eleven miles back on the course. Karen and I had been napping there too, trying to make sure I would be as rested and ready to go as possible when it was time for me to assume pacing duties. We'd all agreed that since the Cedar Run aid station (between Slate Run and Blackwell) was closed to runner crew the best thing for Karen and I to do was beat it up to Blackwell and try to get as much real sleep as possible while Tiff and Brian slogged out those eleven miles, up-grade on the Pine Creek Rail Trail.

We'd arrived, found a place to park close to the aid station but in a dark, secluded spot, and checked in with the staff to tell them that bib #71's crew would be sleeping in the Dodge mini-van in case she arrived before we were up again. Then we reconfigured the seats in the van to make a sleeping spot in the back, set an alarm for 2:10, and settled in to try to sleep sometime after 11:30.


The hard life of crewing an ultrarunner!
Karen waits at Darling Run
on a beautiful late-summer morning.
Our day had begun around 7:00 A.M. (eighteen hours earlier but still close to three hours after Tiff's). The race started at 6:00 A.M., but the first part of the 100-mile course was an out-and-back, six miles north on the Rail Trail - repeated twice, such that after 24 miles runners were right back where they started from. Then they'd do a much longer out-and-back south on the trail to bring the total mileage to 100.

While going over the same ground twice might not have been ideal for the runners it worked well for Karen and I as crew. We 'slept in' (as much as old folk do) had a nice breakfast at the 'famous' Wellsboro Diner (which was really a good place - good food, fast) and then went to the start/finish at around 9:00 to meet Tiff on her second return from the north out-and-back. It worked perfectly.

From there we planned to leap-frog her the rest of the way south. We had a box of her supplies with us in case she needed anything, and she had drop-boxes staged at Blackwell, and at the turn-around aid station at a town called Cammal. We met her again four miles south down the course at Darling Run, then had a long wait in front of us while she ran the almost 17-mile section to Blackwell. There was one other aid station in between - Tiadaghton - but there was no crew access there (pronunciation of 'Tiadaghton' was a topic of frequent discussion, but I heard some local Scouts say it "Tie-a-DOT-in").

It was a tad early, but this seemed like time for lunch to us! We had to go back through Wellsboro en-route to Blackwell anyway, so we looked there for another restaurant to try. We ended up at Harland's Family Style Restaurant where I had the best piece of blueberry pie I've had in years! It was blueberry crumb and it was basically a giant pile of what looked like real wild blueberries. Oh, and I got vanilla ice cream on top. What the heck, I was going to run all night!

Arriving at Blackwell, we had the best of luck. We knew Tiff's other pacer was meeting her there, but we had no idea what he looked like or what he was driving. As it happened, while we were unloading stuff from our van he happened to walk by and spot "Bib #71 Tiffany Hrach" labeled on the crew box, figured out who we were and introduced himself!

Brian Newcomer was immediately likable - positive, energetic, quick to jump in and help anyone. I knew Tiff would have great company for the long middle of her race.

We made a few acquaintances among other crew while we all waited for our runners. We would see quite a few of these folks several times again, since the various runners we were supporting were pretty well settled into their relative positions on the course by now. Tiff arrived before too long - accompanied by her husband, Jason, riding a bike and towing five-year-old son Eli in a cart behind. They had ridden up the trail to meet her.

This was mile 44 and she was starting to feel them now. Brian, Karen and I got her taken care of and then she and Brian headed out south toward Cedar Run. I think Jason and Eli headed back to town. Karen and I packed up and headed south. We stopped at a scenic spot called Rattlesnake Rock that also had rail trail access (not quite two miles south of Blackwell) - said a quick 'hello again' to Tiff and Brian as they passed by, then hiked on out to the rock - pretty cool spot!

Next we stopped at the Cedar Run General Store for some drinks, then headed on down to Slate Run to wait at the aid station there. We popped open the hatch of the mini-van and Karen remembered that the rear seats could flip down backwards to make a rear-facing rumble seat of sorts. We were perfectly positioned to see runners coming in and we were very comfortable. Life as crew isn't too bad!

Once Tiff was in and out of Slate Run, it was time for dinner. Brian recommended a place in the village in Slate Run, the Hotel Manor, and we had a couple of nice steak dinners there while we watched the rain come and go and wondered how Tiff was handling it.

Still smiling!
Tiff comes into Slate Run at mile 54.9.
We finished dinner in time to get to Cammal just as Tiff and Brian were arriving - perfect! The aid station at Cammal was just a mile-and-a-half from the turn-around and Tiff decided to get that done and then spend a little more time at Cammal the second time around, changing clothes and freshening up before starting the long trek back up north in earnest. This gave Karen and I another chance to just sit, visit with people and with each other, and really just enjoy the time.

The aid station crew at Cammal was a lovely family. Dad had volunteered for this and somehow roped Mom into it. She liked to complain about that - all in good humor it seemed (well, maybe she was just a little miffed that he hadn't told her they'd need to be there until 12:30 A.M.). She got a lot of compliments on the excellent soup and the mac-n-cheese she'd made for the runners! They also had a precocious son who was quite the talker and very interested in offering help to everyone.

We also got to know a few other runners while we waited. This was where I met Gene (Gene Dykes, as it turns out). He was really struggling with nausea - a consistent problem for him in warm temperatures, he explained. He wanted nothing more than to barf, but was having trouble making that happen, possibly because he'd taken some anti-nausea medicine before the race (how's that for a nice place to be?). I felt really bad once when I used the one bathroom in the building that housed the aid station and found Gene waiting when I came out. He had a cup of Gatorade with him and his plan was to chug it and hope that it would bounce! Here's this poor guy just trying to barf and I'm holding up the bathroom on him! Later, he jokingly told me I had messed up his whole race and I said I'd, "hate myself forever." Eventually Gene headed back out (without barfing as far as I knew) and I really hoped he'd be able to tough it out.

Tiff and Brian came back and we once again leaped into action taking care of her. That's the other fun part of crewing, of course. The long hours of just relaxing and socializing are punctuated by these short, frenetic minutes where you fly into action like an ER staff - just trying to get anything and everything your runner needs as quickly as possible.

Tiff was definitely feeling the 100K-plus she had covered to that point. I reminded her that every step forward from here was a new distance PR! She had some foot issues and decided to change shoes. Brian took care of taping up one of her pinky toes that had a hot spot or something. I have to say just how amazing Tiff really was. I mean she had some complaints, but they were really minor, infrequent - almost cheerful - and she never lost that smile of hers.

She and Brian headed out north back to Slate Run, Karen and I zipped up ahead of them, had our nap, then took care of Tiff once again. She'd slowed down a bit, but had still made reasonable time on the six miles to Slate Run, and she was eager to get in and out fast and get back to work (after changing back to the original shoes - the new ones apparently weren't working well). We saw them off then beat it up to Blackwell to try to get some real sleep.

Back at Blackwell (and still bleary-eyed)

I'd dozed fitfully for a while, then finally slept soundly for a little chunk of time. Now it was approaching 1:30, and we'd thought that the earliest we might see Tiff and Brian was 2:00. As I stared out into the darkness my mind began to work.

"I wonder where they are? I wonder how Tiff is holding up? Is she still on pace or has she slowed a lot?"

Then I started worrying about my own preparation - the things I yet needed to do to be ready to run/walk my twenty miles. I had partly prepped myself back at Cammal, but still had some things I needed to do. I started mentally running through the list.

Soon I came to the conclusion that it was too late to go back to sleep, I was too keyed up to sleep anyway, and the best thing to do was to get up, get everything prepped and do a little jog down the course to check myself out (make sure my clothing choices were correct, for example). If I met Tiff and Brian I'd be able to make sure everything was still OK, too.

I tried to be as quiet as possible as I dug into my run bag to find the things I needed and get them on. Karen's breathing stayed slow and steady right up until I had to open the door to get out. It was best that I wake her and make sure she knew what I was doing anyway, so she wouldn't just wake up later and find me gone. I gave her a few quick words of explanation, judged that she sounded coherent enough in response that she'd probably remember the conversation, then closed the door and headed off into the night.

I've not done much trail running at night, so there is a lot about it that is new to me. The first thing I noticed when I switched on my headlamp (a real beauty that I'd bought a couple of years ago in a shop-aholic frenzy when I first decided to be an ultrarunner - but had hardly ever used) was that the air was full of some small, drifting particles. Pollen, maybe? At first I was confused by the steady stream of them drifting through the beam in front of my eyes until I realized that I also had really poor visibility further out. Fog - duh!

I started out walking and playing with my light, then broke into an easy trot. I did about two-and-a-half miles out where I found Tiff, Brian, and another runner, Gwynne, walking through the fog. I joined them for the walk back to Blackwell.

Blackwell to Tiadaghton (and the dawn)

Karen had figured out how to get really comfortable after I left and was out cold when we got there! I roused her to let her know we were in. She would help here this final time then head back to our hotel room in Wellsboro to get some more real sleep - and then hopefully meet us at the finish (I was worried about her finding her way back to town by herself, but as it turned out she got to follow an aid station worker who was headed that way).

Once again, Tiff seemed a little more worn down - but also seemed to be holding up surprisingly well. Truthfully, aid station stops had been so many by that point that it's impossible to remember exactly what we did here. She used the porta-john, we got her some stuff to eat while she sat for a few minutes, and we discussed the rest of the run - particularly how she was doing against the cut-offs!

Tiff had fixated on making the cut-offs and had been having a lot of anxiety about it. As he handed off to me, Brian said my main job would be keeping track of time and constantly reassuring Tiff that she had plenty of it! I 'confiscated' the little laminated aid station / cut-off cheat sheet she'd made for herself and had been consulting too frequently (actually she volunteered it - she was quite coherent and understood as well as any of us that all of the energy spent on worry wasn't going to do her any good). We all just wanted her to concentrate on moving forward and leave the worrying to me.

It was about 3:30 A.M. when our little group set out on the trail again. There was Tiff, me, Gwynne, another runner named Kira who'd come in and wanted to have some company for the wee-hour darkness, and Brian - who wanted to do a little out-and-back to round his mileage for the day up to forty. It was impressive that Brian was still so energetic and cheerful after doing a good, solid ultra himself. He's training for the Oil Creek 100M next month and it seems like he's in pretty good shape for it.

Brian soon turned around, and the four of us (me and my now three women) plodded on. I was a little unsure of the dynamic in the group. Gwynne had seemed like an adopted friend when I'd met them south of Blackwell - Brian taking as much care of her as of Tiff. Kira didn't presume on us at all, keeping to herself quite a bit, from time to time stepping out ahead of the group or falling back and just keeping us in sight.

I tried to keep us moving at our target pace of at least 3mph, checking my GPS frequently to see how we were doing. The cut-off at Tiadaghton was 8:00 A.M., so leaving Blackwell at 3:30 we had four-and-a-half hours to cover not quite nine miles - 2mph would make it, so if we could hold our pace we'd have plenty of margin. Most times I checked, we were walking at 16:00 to 18:00 pace, but when that slipped above 20:00 I'd either let everyone know or try just quietly picking it up myself to pull them along.

I also tried to make some conversation, but I'm not much of a talker to begin with and all the less so in the dead of night on no more than three hours' sleep! Still, we chatted about this-and-that as we walked along (mostly about how we were doing on time and distance). We also had some excitement when we encountered a porcupine in the middle of the trail. It shuffled on out of the way, slowly, as they tend to do. Mostly we just walked along steadily, stopping occasionally when someone felt the need to stretch.

Everyone had issues at this point - either physical, mental, or both. Tiff was generally sore, but her real problem was just overpowering sleepiness. As the miles wore on she was finding it harder and harder to keep a good pace walking without drifting off. Kira had been nursing a sore Achilles since I'd met her out-bound at Slate Run. Gwynne was having some of the same problem - and both Gwynne and Kira were having anxiety about the darkness and being left alone on the trail.

My 'manly' protectiveness was kicking in - it was hard not to think of all three women as part of my charge and want to make sure each was doing okay - but I was there for Tiff and it would be unfair to her to spread my focus too much.

I tried to strike a balance, but eventually Tiff made the call. She had just had enough of trying to walk and stay awake so she took off running and I went with her. For a while we leap-frogged with either Gwynne or Kira - as Tiff's decision to push seemed to inspire them to greater effort as well - and pretty much kept everyone in sight. Eventually though, Tiff out-paced them.

It wasn't too callous an abandonment, as I think we were less than two miles from Tiadaghton when it happened and dawn was less than an hour away. Still, Tiff felt bad about it. I reassured her that it was ok. She had to run her own race and so did they. Neither of the others was in any kind of serious trouble and there would be course sweeps coming behind them to make sure they made it to support alright if necessary.

After tentatively trying to convince ourselves that the sky was lightening for a while, there was finally no doubt - dawn had arrived! Tiff knew there were buildings near the trail in the vicinity of Tiadaghton, and had been hallucinating them for quite a while, but finally they appeared to both of us. Just a short way further we saw the oh-so-cheery-and-welcome lights of the aid station.

Tiadaghton to Darling Run

Our other problem back on the trail had been fuel. Tiff hadn't grabbed enough gels from her supplies back at Blackwell and we hadn't thought to load me up with any. Quite a ways back our food supplies had dwindled to Tiff's bag of Swedish Fish and the Koka-moka Probar I had brought for myself for breakfast. The Probar didn't sound appetizing to Tiff, so she'd been subsisting on the Swedish Fish for the latter half of the trek from Blackwell.

She was really hoping for maybe some hot soup or something at Tiadaghton, and that they'd have some gels that she could stock up on for the next leg. Neither turned out to be the case, unfortunately. Pickings there were getting kind of slim and little appealed to her. I think she had a little hot chocolate and settled for half a PBJ to take with her on the trail - but it wasn't really what she wanted and she had a hard time getting it down. After that she would have to continue to fuel on Swedish Fish!

As we left Tiadaghton the sky was truly brightening, and lights were no longer necessary. We both woke up enough to feel more like having some conversation. Of course one topic was the cut-off at Darling Run! It was close to 6:30 A.M. and she had to be out of Darling by 10:30 - so we had four hours to cover less than eight miles to get there. Once again, 2mph would do it and we tried to get right back on our 3mph pace.

Tiff was finding it harder and harder to walk that fast, though, so she continued trying to mix in some running - even though that was getting harder too. She had to stop more frequently to stretch her legs. Often she'd sort of 'shoot out' of the stretch into a run and we'd go to some target we could see up ahead. At least once, she pushed herself to run a whole half-mile! The walks were generally a little too slow, but she was mixing enough running in that I thought we were doing well.

She started experimenting with different walking gaits to see if she could engage some different muscles, and had some success with what she called her 'Bulldog' walk - kind of a sidling thing that was reminiscent of Spike, the bulldog in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons. There was no doubt she was hurting and all of this was taking great effort on her part. Through it all she remained cheerful and upbeat, and we were able to enjoy the scenery, do a little joking around and enjoy each other's company.

For a while we played leap-frog with another woman (who I think had been up ahead of us through much of the night, as we had occasionally seen her light when she turned to look back at us). She had a good, steady walk going, but eventually Tiff's ability to still run carried the day and we pulled ahead of her for good.

Tiff was once again dreaming of real food at the coming aid station - and I was hoping and praying we'd find some! She was really starting to tire of the Swedish Fish but it was all we had. Eventually time and distance on my GPS - and signs that the gorge we'd been traveling through all night (known as the 'Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania') was opening up - told us that we must be close to Darling Run. I pulled a little ahead to peer around a curve, saw the aid station about a quarter-mile further ahead, and yelled the news back to Tiff.

She immediately broke into a run again, rounded the curve and pounded toward it. She was starting to flag before we got there, so I said, "You know, if you run this all the way into the aid station you'll get some real cheers..." I think she might have hated me there for just a few seconds, but it worked - she hung on and ran it into Darling Run with everybody whooping and hollering, and cowbells ringing - just as I'd hoped!

And they had stuff!

Bringing it Home

Darling Run was Tiff's favorite aid station - because they made her hot chocolate and gave her a plate of cold (and I think reconstituted) scrambled eggs! One thing that I definitely learned watching 100-milers this day was that there are unique experiences of food to be had when the body is at such an extremity. Sometimes the most mundane edible thing can seem like food sent from heaven! (Apparently.)

While she sat and enjoyed her eggs and all of the other things she'd found that appealed to her, I borrowed a working phone from one of the aid station people to call Jason and let him know where we were. I happened to catch him just as he was about to put foot to pedal to head down the trail toward us from the finish line.

Tiff's goal had just been to finish under the 30-hour time limit, but now she looked up at me and asked, "How long do I have to come in under 28 hours?"

Looking at my watch, I did the math... "An hour and a half. If you can hold twenty-minute miles you've got it."

She was out of the chair immediately and headed smartly down the trail - her cup of hot chocolate still in hand. I caught up with her, toting the remains of the PBJ I'd begged at the aid station, and we were right back on the job!

She still was doing intervals of running, and we'd covered at least a full mile of the remaining 3.9 by the time we spotted Jason up ahead (with Eli again in tow). Tiff ran to meet them, and Jason was as amazed as I was that she was still able to do that!

Really, this last section became sort of a long victory celebration. There was no doubt she would finish. There was no doubt she'd make 28 hours. Jason and Eli lifted her spirits - and then Brian showed up to join us! He'd caught some sleep in his car after we left him and then headed up to see Tiff bring it in.

At one point Jason spotted the last woman we'd passed about a quarter-mile back on our six and said, "She's running." Tiff surprised us all and took off like a shot - I mean at like a sub-10:00 pace! "She's going!" I yelled, and went with her. She couldn't hold it for long, but it was clear she would not be passed in the final mile or so of this race! The other runner went back to walking, but one of my last pacing duties was to keep an eye out behind us the rest of the way in case she tried to make another move.

Finally we saw the gate up ahead that marked the last point on the rail trail! From there it was a left-turn onto a side road, and maybe just a quarter-mile to the finish. Brian ran on ahead to be ready to take some finish line video, and Tiff and I ran together the whole way up the road. Tiff spotted Karen (by her purple coat) standing by to cheer us in too. We made the final turn into the parking lot where the finish line was set up, and I peeled off discreetly to let Tiff pass through the timing gate on her own.

It's hard to describe the emotions at that point, but I will always especially cherish the memory of that final run - the joy and pride of seeing her sprint through the finish, cheers, high-fives, hugs, smiles. Everyone was there - she had her whole team gathered around her - and everybody looked like it was Christmas morning! It was just a magical moment.

She not only beat 28 hours, she crushed it - coming in at 27:25:02, officially!

Tiff and crew just after the finish
L-R: Brian, Tiff, me, Karen
(Photo credit - Steve Hanes, RD)

Final thoughts

Both Gwynne and Kira finished while we were still sorting ourselves out near the finish line - so good to see them make it too! Gene had also finished - and based on his finish time I'm pretty sure that was him arriving in Blackwell when I woke up back there.

The race was won outright by Connie Gardner in 16:16:13! Would have been nice to be able to see her run, but I never laid eyes on her. I think she was already back through Slate Run inbound by the time we got there outbound.

Tiff's run placed her 25th of 31 finishers. No one finished much past 28 hours.

Here's a link to the Garmin data for my part of the run. Our mile splits were well under target - the longest times, at mile 8 and mile 16, included aid station stops. I think she did very well! If you look closely at mile 18 you'll see it recorded me briefly moving at 8:40 pace. That's when I was chasing Tiff after she took off in reaction to the pursuing runner!

The race was well-executed by RD Steve Hanes and his team. Aid stations were well-staffed, mostly well-stocked, and everyone was very attentive and helpful. The venue is gorgeous!  I very much recommend the race to anyone who wouldn't be put off by the flat consistency of a rail trail.

BTW, I'd read some other reports from this race complaining about what sounded like a coarse gravel surface on the trail causing issues with footing and with foot pain. I don't know if the trail has been redone since those were written, but every part of it that I saw or ran on had a packed, fine gravel surface - no issue at all!

I would absolutely crew or pace again. It was just a fantastic experience, and Karen and I really enjoyed doing it together. I think it might have been her favorite ultra experience to date because the weather was mostly great and she got to be with me instead of just waiting for me all day!

Not making a blanket offer here, but for the right runner, 'Team McHenry' just might be available in future!


  1. Great Blog Patrick, I enjoyed the day immensely as well as meeting you and your wife! I hope our trails cross again

    Brian ;)

  2. Thank you so much Patrick. I haven't done much with crew's or pacers, but you and Karen and Brian were all that I could've hoped for. You guys are all the best!