Best race photo ever, courtesy of Rusty Glessner
When I began to consider my running goals for this year, I realized that this was the year in which I wanted to take some risks with my running. I tend to shy away from risks in life in general, but I thought that I had finally gotten strong enough that I needed to push myself a bit. I had kind of settled into a pattern of running a lot of races that were fun, but completely in my comfort zone. I decided that I wanted to test that a bit this year.
It was in that mindset that I decided to sign up for the Worlds End 50K. I had completed three ultramarathons up to that point, but they were all on timed, 12-hour looped courses. In addition, all three races were run on courses that were fairly tame by trail running standards. The Worlds End course is one giant loop that takes you up and down through the Endless Mountains for almost 6,000 ft of elevation. I knew that this course would be considerably harder than anything I had previously attempted.
About two weeks out from the race, the nerves really began to set in. I was traveling to the race with two friends, but knowing that they both run at a faster pace than I do, I figured I would be largely running on my own. I began to do what I do best – I worried. I worried about the climbs being too challenging. I worried about the steady rain that was forecast. I worried that I would get lost along the course. I worried about the bears and rattlesnakes that call those mountains home. In fact, you could say I became almost obsessively fixated on the possibility of encountering bears. I nearly talked myself out of the race before I managed to get my head on straight and remember that the fear was supposed to be what would make it exciting. By race day, I was slightly calmer.
My kind husband agreed to accompany me to the race, which helped my nerves a lot. Just knowing that he would be on site gave me some much-needed courage. I also spent a lot of time remembering that it’s a privilege to have the ability to disappear out into the woods for a full day of running. I resolved to enjoy the course as much as possible, give it my best shot, and just see what would happen. I also prayed that I’d be able to keep my cool, should I meet up with a bear.
Banner at the race start
As we approached the race start at the Worlds End State Park, I glanced out my window to spot a bald eagle flying over the Loyalsock Creek. I’ve never seen a bald eagle in the wild before, and the sight was completely stunning. I chose to view it as a good omen, symbolizing a positive day ahead. We arrived at the race about an hour before the start and easily found a parking spot. I took advantage of the opportunity to use a real bathroom at the visitor’s center, before wandering down the hill to collect my race bib. I was thrilled to find a super soft race shirt inside the swag bag, along with a personalized buff. Many runners were relaxing around the start, catching up with friends and enjoying the free coffee and pancakes. After a few words from the race director, in which he described the course and warned us about wildlife encounters, we set off.
These two women are incredible trail runners. One day I hope to be able to keep pace with them.
The race started off with a few minutes of paved road, before turning onto the trails for our first climb. I started with my two friends, but knowing how motivated they get in races, I allowed them to pull ahead after just a few minutes. I was determined to run the race at my own pace, and even thought there were only 150 runners total, there were plenty of people for me to fall in with. We began the first climb, and I immediately focused on stepping over the numerous roots and rocks without falling off the side of the trail. The trail began to climb, hugging the side of the mountain. I learned at Hyner that I do best when I can pretend that there are no drops along the trail, so I kept my eyes straight ahead and resisted the urge to look down to my left. The early miles passed easily, as I enjoyed listening to the banter from the runners around me.
The view halfway up the second climb.
When we reached the top of our first climb, we quickly turned back downhill, and my fellow runners began to take off down the slope. Hyner taught me that downhills tend to be my weakness, so even though I hated the feeling of being passed, I let a large group fly ahead of me while I focused on keeping a steady pace. We ran along some lovely single track before reaching the boulders for our next ascent. When I ran the course preview back in January, these boulders intimidated me, but I was happy to find them much more manageable the second time around. Still challenging, but not as overwhelming. In fact, the next 6-7 miles were all on trails that we covered in January, which was a great feeling, especially since there was none of the ice that we dealt with back on that run. When we finally reached the top of that long climb, I settled into a comfortable pace, taking advantage of the fairly smooth single track. We reached the first aid station just after 4 miles, and I was boosted by the bagpipes that were playing just before the aid station. An additional pleasant surprise was finding my two friends waiting for me at the station. What a sweet, unexpected gesture! I grabbed some watermelon and a bit of water, and the three of us set off back onto the course.
For the next ten minutes or so, we ran together, happily bantering the way that we do on our usual weekend runs. These two were on a mission though, and after using their speed to pass several groups of runners ahead of us, I gradually watched them pull away again. I found that there were enough runners nearby that I felt comfortable on my own, and over the next few miles, I happily soaked in the beautiful sites, occasionally exchanging a few brief words with other runners as we crossed paths. The course took us along several beautiful waterfalls and I continually marveled at the stunning amount of green that surrounded me. Around mile 8 or so, we crossed a wide bridge, and I met up with two fellow female runners who were at a pace that was similar to mine. We ran together until the second aid station, comparing notes on our experiences at Hyner, and our favorite injury prevention tools. I love having the opportunity to meet new people along the trails.
View from the bridge
Aid station 2 was located around mile 10, and it began to rain just as we arrived. Even the day before the race, weather forecasters were predicting steady rain all day, so I found myself feeling grateful that I had made it 10 miles before having to contend with any wet weather. Fortunately, the showers were both light and short-lived, and the skies quickly returned to the overcast clouds which kept the temps a bit more comfortable. The next 5-6 miles passed in a bit of a blur. I found myself a bit discouraged on the long climbs, until I remembered that I felt the same way every time I encountered one at Hyner. I finally decided to ignore any feelings or thoughts that I might have on the long uphill stretches, which was a strategy that proved to be quite effective. Instead, I focused on a strong hike to get uphill, followed by a comfortable run whenever the trail evened out.
It came as a great relief when I made it to aid station 3. There was an awesome young boy volunteering, who ran up to collect one of my water bottles and refill it for me. I was also thrilled to find some fresh berries in among the snacks. I thanked the volunteers and headed back onto the course, feeling uplifted knowing that the next station was less than 4 miles away, and that my husband would be waiting there. All was going well until I began to make my way down the long, rocky downhill just prior to the aid station. There were a lot of large rocks to navigate, and I was carefully picking my way across them when I came to one boulder that looked well-worn and slippery. Acknowledging this in my head, I put one hand on a rock next to me before taking a careful step onto the boulder. I knew the moment that I placed my foot that I had made a mistake, as it instantly slid out from under me. With no way to catch myself, I went down hard on the rock, managing to hit the back of my thigh, my butt, and my back along the way. It was one of those falls that sends you reeling for a minute. I was grateful that there was no one around, which allowed me a minute to utter a few choice words and catch my breath before setting back off along the way. Lesson learned – if a rock looks slippery, assume that it is and avoid it at all costs. I made it safely down the remainder of the slope, and pulled into aid station 4 eager for a short break.
At aid station 4, I met up with my husband, who provided me with a refill of Tailwind and a general overall check-in. I was happy to hear that he had seen my friends pass through, and that they were less than 30 minutes ahead of me. I was also thrilled to see that I was still slightly ahead of the pace chart that I had drawn up for myself. The other lift was realizing that I was at the only cut-off spot for the 50K, and I was two hours ahead of the cut-off time. I knew that my race was going pretty well, but it was a big mental boost realizing that even if my second half fell apart, I should be able to make it in under the 12-hour time limit.
Upon leaving the aid station, the course once again turned right back uphill. I had probably been climbing for about 10 minutes when I realized that the orange trail markers appeared to have disappeared. I met up with another racer, discussed the lack of markers with her, and realized that we should turn back and see if the trail diverged at all. Sure enough, about 3-4 minutes back down the trail, we found the turn that we had missed. I was annoyed at myself for the mental slip, but grateful that I had not gone further off course. At this point we were about 20 miles in, and I was starting to really feel the tiredness in my legs, along with the soreness from my fall. The benefit from having run plenty of previous long efforts was the knowledge that you can feel this soreness, and still manage to run for many additional hours. I tried to push the discomfort to the back of my mind and continue along my way.
Aid station 5 is called Canyon Vista, and it was one of the most spectacular points along the course. After enduring a 500 foot climb, you come out to a stunning view of the mountains. I took the opportunity to snap a quick photo, and then entered the aid station, where I took my first seat of the entire race. Canyon Vista was stocked with a great variety of food, and I happily replenished some calories with several handfuls of Chex mix, a few chips dipped in hummus, and some more fresh fruit. I was also thrilled to find that they had a copy of the elevation map, which indicated that we had just two more short climbs ahead of us. With this encouraging bit of news, I dragged myself off the picnic bench and set back out on my way.
The stunning view from the top of Canyon Vista.
The stretch between aid stations 5 and 6 was again a bit of a blur. I knew that I had a little more than 5 miles to cover before the final station. Unfortunately, my watch battery died about a mile into this stretch, leaving me with the time, but no more official distance recording. I chose to focus on just moving forward, at as good of a pace as I could manage. This stretch was one of the quietest that I encountered, but I found that it didn’t really bother me. I do remember thinking that it would be a good time to come across a bear, as I was so tired at that point that I don’t think I even would have cared. I was thrilled when I could hear the loud commotion coming down the trail from the sixth and final aid station.
Aid station 6 was fantastic. It was manned by a group from Pagoda Pacers, a running club based near Reading that puts on many great trail races. Immediately upon entering the station, I handed over my water bottle, which was once again quickly refilled. I snagged a pb&j quarter and munched it while chatting with one of the volunteers about Blues Cruise, a 50K that the Pacers put on that I am planning to run in October. All of the guys were wonderfully encouraging, assuring me that I had less than 4 miles left and that they were all downhill. They kindly, but insistently, urged me along my way, and I left that stop with a big smile on my face from their cheerful demeanor.
While I was thrilled to be near the end, I have to admit that the next few miles were some of my least favorite along the course. The course followed a slightly uphill path through the grass for more than a mile, and with little scenery and no other runners, I found myself quite bored. My legs were also shot at that point, and I had to do some heavy bargaining with myself to resist the urge to just slowly trudge along. I settled for intervals, rewarding myself with brief walk breaks after solid run efforts. I was relieved when the course finally turned back downhill for good, even more so when it returned to the woods.
We had been warned that the final downhill was brutal, and after my earlier slip, I had decided that I would sit down and scoot on my butt if need be, rather than risk another fall right at the end. Fortunately it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It was definitely long, and steep in sections, but there were enough level spots that I was able to keep from gathering too much speed. I took it cautiously, focusing on my footing and once again avoiding the temptation to glance sideways at the drop that I could feel along the trail. I can’t explain my relief when I finally hit the flat section at the bottom of the hill. Knowing that I was nearly done, I focused all my energy on pushing forward as quickly as I could. With the finish line in sight, I spotted my husband, and I happily crossed in just over 9 hours to the sound of many cheers and ringing cowbells.
I was handed a medal, received a hug of congratulations from my husband, and then made my way over to the food tables, where a wonderful assortment of burgers and soups awaited me. I grabbed a veggie burger and a bowl of black bean soup, and joined several fellow racers at a picnic table for a much-needed rest. I was happy to find that I felt good enough to sip a cold beer along with my soup, and I spent the next several minutes happily reliving the race with my fellow runners. My friend Dan, who ran the course preview with us in January, had suffered a calf injury early in the race, and he ended up crossing just a few minutes before I did. We chatted about our individual experiences and looked forward to the next races on our calendars. I had the opportunity to briefly share hugs with my two friends, Michelle and Nicole, who managed to rock the course and finish an hour ahead of me. Unfortunately, the rain returned after a few minutes, which put an end to our post-run party.
I made another visit to the visitor’s center bathroom, where I did my best to wipe all the mud off my legs and change into warm, dry clothes. Between the sore legs and the abrasions from my fall, the ride home was an uncomfortable couple of hours, but I was grateful that my husband was there to take the wheel.
How can you not love a race that routinely takes you past places like this?
This race blew me away in every way possible. The course was as hard as I expected, but much more beautiful than I could have anticipated. Everyone involved with the race was fantastic, from the race directors, to the volunteers, to my fellow runners. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to spend a day on such wonderful trails in such a gorgeous spot, and I am already eagerly looking forward to a return trip next year.