October 14, 2017
Ultramarathons make me puke.
And it seems to be getting worse.
Atop Cemetery Hill, a roughly 800 foot climb from the road and aid station #3 below, I emptied my stomach. Water, Sword Hydration, Salt & Vinegar Pringles, and a quarter of a grilled cheese sandwich.
Dammit. My nutrition plan lay in the colored leaves near my feet. The finish line was still nearly ten miles away. There was a runner making sure I was okay. “I’m good, man. Thanks,” I say.
I’ve been here before.
For some reason, I keep getting sick during long races. Last time it was on the road that splits Testicle Spectacle and Meth Lab Hill. The time before that I was in Terre Haute, Indiana running 5k loops for twelve hours.
The Oil Creek 100 is run on the Gerard Hiking Trail in western Pennsylvania. The course stretches from Titusville to Oil City, is mostly single track, a few miles of dirt road, and a teeny bit of pavement. The course is rocky in spots, stunningly gorgeous in many places, and includes roughly five thousand feet in elevation gain per trail loop. The course runs south on the western side of Oil Creek, turns at the southern most point of the state park, and returns north on the eastern side of the creek. The 50k runs the looped course once, the 100k twice, and the 100 mile race covers the trail three times.
Following a less-than-stellar showing at the Barkley Fall Classic, I hastily signed up for two more 50k races this year. I didn’t want to end the race season with a failure. I added myself to the Oil Creek wait list and asked if I could sneak into am already full November race. Within a week I was in both races and my ultra season had been extended up through Thanksgiving. Oil Creek was primed to be my redemption race as well as a boost to my confidence heading into winter. I also, not so secretly, have my eye on the full OC100 for next year, making this 50k a scouting trip for what I’d like to be my first hundred.
I lined up in roughly the front 20-25 runners and went out with them down the road and bike path. We hit the single track trails and first hill in a tight group of six to ten runners. This was my company for the first several miles of the morning. The guy in front of me was super chatty. The guy in front of him wasn’t, but was apparently a good listener. I eavesdropped on their conversation while monitoring the two guys behind me that stayed close to my heels. I’d let them pass, watch them take off down the trail, and then catch them when they stopped to walk further up the trail. Before long they would be on my heels again.
I had driven down to Titusville that morning and left Betsy and the boys to sleep in. The plan was to run and still get back home in time for dinner. You know, just a casual 50k. The weeks between BFC and Oil Creek were spent recovering with easy treadmill runs, two long runs on trails, a couple hill workouts, and a very short taper. I also switched to a pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.0 shoes to try out the wide toe box and hope it doesn’t pinch my toes. My goal for Oil Creek was to finish between 6 and 7 hours, keep my nutrition in check, and run a strong, steady race.
I filled my hydration pack with Sword Endurance drink, carried two water bottles in the front of my vest, and brought along a Clif bar in case I didn’t like anything at the aid stations. The plan beyond that was to eat what looked good, but just make sure I was eating something. I couldn’t run out of calories like I did at BFC.
Our small group hit aid station 1 just over six miles in, but I didn’t stop. I grabbed a large hunk of watermelon on my way through and started hiking the next sizeable hill. Our “group” dropped to another runner named Dan and myself. He held a good, steady pace and was walking the hills, so I trailed him for four miles or so, talking off and on. Somewhere around mile 11 he stopped by a tree, and I never saw him again until the finish line.
Mile 12.5 was the second aid station and the turn around of the course. I arrived at the station alone, had a banana and some soda, and took off to face Heisman Hill. I found out later I came into this aid station in 29th place out of 165ish runners. That’s close to where I wanted to be, and I was feeling fantastic. Everything was going according to plan. I was moving a little faster than I expected and felt like I could finish this race strong.
The next stretch was long and lonely. Heisman Hill flattens out near some stunningly huge boulders, there were a couple long dirt road sections, and very runnable single track. I passed several 100k hikers but no one that appeared to be running. The 100 kilometer distance has the same 30 hour cutoff as the 100 mile race and draws a lot of hikers to the event. I’m mildly tempted to try it, but I would much rather just run. It was also during this stretch that my stomach started to turn. It’s been an increasingly common theme to my ultra experience, and one I’d like to get rid of. I dry heaved a couple of times, but nothing came of it. I tried to eat the Clif bar shoved into my vest but couldn’t bring myself to swallow it. Ripping off small bits, I got down what I could but decided to wait until aid station 3 to eat something more substantial.
Aid station 3 was down a long dirt road roughly 20 miles from the start. I was feeling fatigued by this point but confident. I peed, grabbed a square of grilled cheese, topped off my water, and sat down in an empty chair. I’ve heard “beware the chair” so many times, but I still don’t believe it. Sitting down is amazing. Just to take weight off my feet for a couple minutes is always a huge relief. During timed events, I like to use sitting down and relaxing for five minutes as a reward for milestones like 50k, 40 miles, etc. It’s also a good chance to re-evaluate my race plan and take stock of what my body is doing. This wasn’t a long race like that though, so I got up after two minutes and got moving with a handful of Pringles to keep me company. If I hurried, I was on track to get under 6 hours and had a slight chance to finish in the top 20. My A+ goal was in reach.
Three miles later I had my hands on my knees. Everything I ate earlier and a lot of water had just made a return appearance in my life. The guy I had just passed was making sure I was okay. Another runner further up the trail was hollering back to check on me. My stomach hadn’t digested anything. Only eight miles from the end, after twenty-plus strong miles, I was, figuratively, right back where I started with my stomach issues. Sigh. I wiped my chin, thanked the nearby runners for their concern, and tried to walk it off. After a few minutes I realized I actually felt great. I swallowed another salt pill with a tiny swig of water and started running again. If you look back at my mile splits, this is the exact moment where I drop from 12 minute miles to 14. I may have told myself everything felt good, but the data says otherwise.
Over the next miles the trail got rockier. I caught up to a runner I had previously chatted with, and we picked our way through the technical parts together. At the next water stop I passed him, hoping that the trailhead was somewhere in the next couple of miles. At mile 28 you come out of the woods into the sunshine. A volunteer enthusiastically told me there were 2.25 miles left and just follow the flags. Squinting through the sunshine, I thanked him. Two and a quarter is nothing! This part of the trail cuts through and around the Drake Well Museum just outside of Titusville, PA. There is a working oil rig that I could hear from miles away, Oil Creek runs along side the park, and there is a lot of exposure to the sun. I dry heaved again during this section, dumped a water bottle on my head, and contemplated taking a quick, cool-off swim in the creek. The water on my feet would have felt marvelous. Instead I decided to run it in. It was almost done.
I crossed the finish line at 6:31:10 in 26th place, was handed my bronze OC100 buckle, and found some shade. I briefly chatted with Tom the RD about how I got in off the waitlist almost last minute and thanked him for a good race. Apparently he had a lot of people drop out this year. Filling up my water bottle I wandered back toward the course and found a tree to sit under and relax for a bit. My feet were sore but not aching, my stomach had settled, and it just felt nice to sit in the grass. Even better was the feeling that my BFC experience was behind me, and I had run a decent race.
♠ What I threw up wasn’t digested. It occurred to me after the race that maybe it isn’t what I’m eating during my races, but something with my body. Then it dawned on me that I have been taking Immodium before long runs and races. Rather than deal with an emergency bathroom issue, it’s become a habit to pop a couple pills and forget about it. Immodium, in an effort to make sure you don’t shit yourself, slows blood flow and muscle contractions in the intestines. In other words, it does what it can to stop digestion. This helps explains why I had so much water left in my stomach after aid station three and oatmeal still in my belly during BFC. After a series of races featuring stomach issues, it turns out I may have been sabotaging myself this whole time. My new hypothesis is that if I skip the Immodium, my stomach will be just fine. The November race will be the real test. God, wouldn’t it be great to finish an ultra without getting sick!
♠ I ran and hiked well for most of the day. The “gently rolling hills” of Frozen Head and BFC have warped my sense of “hill” to mean I can power hike anything. Saturday was no different, and I passed several people on hiking portions of this trail. Climbing Heisman Hill I thought, “Oh no…it has a name; it must be huge.” Then I remembered Rat Jaw. Heisman Hill wasn’t bad. Rockefeller’s Revenge however is another story.
♠ My problems with sore feet in ultras have been from poor shoe choices. My La Sportiva Mutants squeeze my toes and put undue pressure on the balls of my feet. By the end of BFC my feet hurt to walk on. In my Altra Lone Peaks my feet felt like I had run 30 miles, but they didn’t hurt. Even if the Immodium theory is wrong, having shoes that fit better is going to make a world of different.
♠ I can 100% finish faster. If I have my stomach issues solved and get the right training in, I can start pushing to place higher in these races. Twenty-sixth out of 165 isn’t bad, but I can do better.
Next month I’ll be running Bills’ Badass 50k in Ohio. The race is a five-mile-loop course using part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. There should be roughly 5,000 feet of gain, a good atmosphere, and maybe even decent running temperatures. From everything I’ve heard, it’s supposed to be a good time. I’m looking forward to the short loops and hopefully finally nailing down the stomach issues that have plagued me all year.